Posted in Education

First, Do No Harm: The Pressing Need for Source Protection

By guest blogger K.M. Britton

Hello, there!  I’m here to talk to you today about source protection, why you should care more about it and how you can do it.

This is actually my first-ever official blog post.  Until now, I have flown below the radar.  For the past twelve years, my main talent/gift/what-have-you has been making sure that those with a story to tell can tell it to the right person, at the right time, without being harmed.  I have become a trusted middleman to journalists, documentary filmmakers, human rights organizations, legal aid groups, politicians and civil society members, delivering a source’s information without disclosing identifying information that could bring her harm.  In doing this, I take reasonable precautions to protect myself, but, as an educated white woman in the U-S-of-A, I’m not so concerned with my own safety.  My concern is with the safety of those who trust me.  I am a trust broker, never a trust breaker.  Hence, I have been privy to incredible stories.

Now I am switching roles from undercover go-between to official journalist and nonprofit executive director, which means I will be less anonymous, thus less able to do my previous work.  I am writing this for myself as much as I am for all of you, as a document to remind myself of the principles that have gotten me here.

I am also inspired to write because of three names in the news: Wikileaks.  Haystack.  Autoweek.


Yes, Autoweek.

One of these things is not like the others, and not just because it is a magazine about cars.  Unlike supposedly activist upstarts Haystack and Wikileaks, Autoweek did its damnedest to protect sources.

After refusing to disclose photos of a street race, Autoweek faced the arrest of its editor-in-chief, police threats to destroy the magazine’s offices and a lawsuit against its publisher.  On September 14th, the European Union High Court ruled in the magazine’s favor for protecting its sources, reasoning that “forcing journalists to disclose sources not only hurts the source whose identity is revealed, but may damage the reputation of media in the eyes of potential sources and the public.”  It held that Dutch police officers’ confiscation of a data CD with relevant information was “in itself, an interference with the … company’s freedom to receive and impart information” as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The story here is not that Autoweek is awesome.  The story is that Autoweek appears to be a rare, ethical bird in an otherwise apathetic journalistic world.   This problem is being exacerbated by online tools, such as Haystack and Wikileaks, that purport to support free speech and protect would-be sources, but may actually do the opposite – Haystack due to technological limitations, and Wikileaks because its allegiance lies with information being free, sometimes at the expense of those who provide the information.  (All of this has been a handy distraction from the role of the mainstream media in endangering sources, which has actually sought to exempt Wikileaks from source protection law, not to mention bloggers…)

I write today because I see a crisis in news reporting.  Follow me, here.

Journalists want to stay employed.

People are employed when they are seen as solving a problem.

The problem journalists are paid to solve is the reader/viewer/listener’s inability to be all places or be an expert in all things crossed with her desire to learn about the things happening in the world that are relevant to her, that she cannot be present to verify personally or lacks the expertise to understand.  We are paid to witness and digest.

With me so far?

So.  With the internet being the bastion of messy information that it is, the demand for quality information about the world is high.  People seek trustworthy sources of analysis and distillation with which to make sense of the madness.   In order to be trusted and taken seriously by one’s audience, one must be credible.  Yet, media credibility is at an all-time low, and gaining credibility is a Sisyphean struggle.

Journalists are taught that publishing source names, source identification and source affiliation with the story will increase the public’s perception of credibility.  However, have we actually thought this through?

Do journalists even consider the issue of source protection, or what goes into it, unless and until a source asks not to be attributed?   Even when a source does ask, it is industry practice for a journalist to pressure that source to go on the record.  The New York Times and Reuters demand as much.

However, please consider the following: Human Rights Watch reports are one of the most credible sources of information on conditions across the world, yet they rarely publish source names.  And we trust them.


Because (a) they have rigorous internal checks to verify information, and (b) they have not let us down yet.

The latter is the true point of this article: don’t let people down.

Those people include your readers.  Just because you quote someone else as reciting a lie, that does not get you off the hook for reporting the lie.  You lose credibility either way.

They also include your sources.  Releasing information about a source – however innocuous that information seems – brings with it certain realities that it is your professional responsibility to face:

1.    That source’s name will now and likely forever be linked with whatever she shared with you.
2.    That source’s name will now and likely forever be available on the internet, thanks to your attribution.
3.    That source likely has a job, a family and a reputation she would like to protect, just as you aim to protect yours.
4.    That source may be the subject of government, corporate or community reprisals for engaging in her disclosure.
5.    And the last, most difficult one for journalists to swallow:  That source has told you information that impacts others, and your readers may actually be some of those impacted.

With all of this in mind, I would like you to consider my source protection maxim, and then some tools to achieve it.  The title might have given my maxim away, but here goes.

I find it interesting that doctors are meant to take the Hippocratic Oath, while journalists often see themselves as neutral watchmen, obligated only to the truth.  Yet, in my experience, when one applies the doctor’s credo “First, do no harm” to journalism, magical things happen:

1.    One’s focus shifts from selfishness to compassion,
2.    One becomes more trustworthy and hence more trusted, and THUS…
3.    One is entrusted with more, richer, more nuanced access to the truth.

This is why I pursue the following course of actions in my dealings, and hope you will, too.

1.    Apply the Hippocratic Oath to interactions with sources.  ASSUME your source could be at risk of harm for disclosing to you.  Use technology and good sense to take initial protective measures, removing those measures as reasonable once you have determined their likely risk level with them, but also using your best judgment to determine what protection that source needs in order to really give you the story.
2.    Once the source trusts you with good reason, get the whole story.
3.    Once you have gotten the whole story and repeated back the key points to make sure you understood them, seek to determine what of the story could be harmful to the source, and disclose those risks before getting the final “OK” to go forth and publish.  Then, and only then, can you be sure that this source trusts you and is invested alongside you in the story.  If you walk away leaving a source with a queasy stomach, you have just lost a source.
4.    Vigorously check what a source says.  Apply the above principles to each subsequent “background” source.  Validate the story so even if the first source is lying, you have your story.  Police reports are meant to be the facts and nothing but the facts, yet anyone who has reported on crime knows to verify, verify, verify with as many sources as one can, despite the officer’s name being right at the top of the report (the human desire to protect oneself can inspire a creative recounting of the “facts”).

I am sharing this with you in the hopes that together, we can apply these norms and change journalism from a shallow search for the next hot story at all costs to a trust-based exploration of that holy “truth” we all serve.  Having written this post, I think I will actually start blogging if you are interested in learning more about the “how” that goes with this passionate exploration of “why.”  Please comment, let me know what you think and stay in touch!

KM Britton (@KMBTweets) is a writer, lawyer, listener, nonprofit founder, recovering filmmaker & public health degree candidate from Boston, MA.  She is currently taking a class in NPR-style radio reporting.


Home of the National Association of Black Journalists's (NABJ's) Digital Journalism Task Force

3 thoughts on “First, Do No Harm: The Pressing Need for Source Protection

  1. Good post. Very informative and a nice reminder.

    It brings up another important point: Media have undermined their credibility by presenting information that has misled the public as well as endangered their sources.

    Aside from outing a source or causing someone harm due to a statement they made on the record, or an inadvertent association with an event or person with which the source had no association, media have also published and broadcast lies and propaganda.

    Media have also overlooked relevant and important stories, looked the other way when close associates (including advertisers and corporate connections) were under scrutiny, and done much to malign themselves as some media have actively sought to malign others.

    The protection of sources is a supreme point that is made well in the above post. But media cannot gain credibility by offering information as factual without attributing it to someone outside of the media organization who is associated with the story and can be a credible witness.

    While that process has also been sabotaged by media providing a national microphone for Pentagon plants to hijack the national narrative and spin public opinion about life and death however it desired, I’m at a loss to determine how best media can regain public trust while also providing significant protection for credible sources.

    With the advent of social media and the rapid rise of original content producers that also aggregate news and publish blogs (Huffington Post, Daily Beast and others), media are under tremendous pressure to get stories out before the competition, which can also impact the level of scrutiny of sources and the critical thinking skills employed by journalists. Strong scrutiny and critical questioning of sources helps to keep journalists from being duped, which in turn protects the public.

    Today, there is far less critical questioning and far more regurgitation of source quotes. Overworked and underpaid journalists on deadline are far more apt to run with a source’s information without proper scrutiny and investigation when they have the ability to pass the buck to the source. But if one must accept the responsibility for plaguing the public with punditry and propaganda, perhaps journalists will engage in more research and support to shore up the information derived from sources. And maybe that will lead to greater protections of sources?

    I don’t know the answer. But it gets my mind whirling around the questions. Thanks for the addressing the subject.

  2. Thank you, Mike, for those insights, concerns and questions – you have my head swirling, as well!

    “Overworked and underpaid journalists on deadline are far more apt to run with a source’s information without proper scrutiny and investigation when they have the ability to pass the buck to the source.” IMO, many journalists are actually just apt to run with a source’s information without proper scrutiny and investigation, period. To quote my cab driver this evening: “We’re all human, but we’re all different people.” Meaning, we’re all human, but we make very different choices when faced with ethical dilemmas. Reporting the news in the face of limits on time/energy/money is one of those dilemmas, sure. However, I truly believe that the core problem is that we are taught the wrong set of ethics from the get-go when we enter this line of work. We are taught that the source is somehow “other.” That the subject of the story is somehow “other.” That to feel identification with the subject’s humanity would damage our objectivity – when really, our lack of identification just damages our humanity. Fiction writing classes teach you to write with your right brain and edit with your left. As a writer gets better, she can switch back and forth more quickly and thoroughly. I think the same approach should be brought to journalism education: teach our students to start off assuming the person is telling the truth and then switch “hats” to question what they have just heard, then switch back to a position of open accepting then back to detachment, etc. We lose so much the other way – we end up with 40% of our journalists vomiting back the swill they digested from press releases and 40% cynically “passing the buck” to sources they don’t trust, like or relate to as they report news they do not actually believe happened in the way they report them. (20% still manage to do damn good journalism.)

    You got me rambling, but I hope I made my point: this problem goes to the core of our humanity. We need to keep talking about it. Thank you for engaging in this discussion!

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