Investigative reporting can sometimes be risky, particularly in countries where political issues can be sensitive and journalists can be arrested or even killed. So, often working discreetly (if not actually ‘underground’) is important. It is your responsibility to alert your source to any potential danger that could result from the story being published – but also to point out to them the social benefit and public interest of the disclosure. Only when you have discussed both these aspects can you say the source gave ‘informed’ consent to being named in the story. Make sure the source understands the risks of meeting you, discussing the story over the phone or in e-mails.
Do not discuss matters related to the source where you can be overheard, bugged, tapped (phone calls) or hacked (e-mails). Remember, it is very easy to track phone records, including cell phone calls, and to use routine tracking signals to locate you. Switch off your phone and remove the batteries before going to meetings that need to be secret. Ensure you keep any notes or records relating to the source in a safe place; perhaps with a third-party who is not connected to the investigation.
Open, identified witnesses, who talk to you without ambiguity, is the only effective way to counteract the spinning, lies, errors and crimes of the great and powerful. So you need to take time to get that. However, you cannot force someone to speak to you or go on the record. You need to understand the reasons behind their hesitation; don’t be afraid to ask them. A good question is: ‘What might happen if your name became known?’ Sometimes, the reason is personal fear: an undocumented migrant will be deported if her identity becomes known; a senior civil servant may be fired or even imprisoned; the person living with HIV may be attacked by his community. Explain to your source, before any information has been exchanged, that you may have to share their identity with some other people. Discuss how you will hide their identity, including how you will refer to their location, background, status or even gender. Accept your source’s requirements for certain information to be off-the-record or for background only – though you can try to make sure your editor and other colleagues involved in the story understand this, too. Your editor may ask you to disclose the name of the source. When you do this, make it absolutely clear that this information must go no further than the editor’s office. This is the single most important principle governing relationships between reporters and sources. If you have given a commitment to conceal someone’s identity, you must honour it; even if that means you end up in jail. But never make promises to a source in advance that you cannot keep; it is better to use an anonymous or off-the-record source than carry the moral responsibility for a tortured or dead one.
Bear in mind that in many countries, reporters and editors are tortured to reveal the names of sources. And since media offences in these countries often fall under criminal rather than civil law, verdicts may turn on your sources of information, and refusal to reveal these may count as obstruction or contempt of court, and carry a prison sentence. You need to devise your own limits on how far you are prepared to go to protect a source before you even embark on the investigation.
‘My worst experience as a journalist was to have a source assassinated, because the source had a lot more information than he provided for me, but he wanted to test the waters. He did not want his identity revealed, but of course all the people he was involved with did not have much difficulty to work out who he was and he got wiped out. So, maybe as a source it’s better that you don’t feed things in dribs and drabs, so that there’s no reason to kill you, or you take the risk rather of using your name so that any action that is taken against you subsequently is very clearly in response to your whistle-blowing action. That’s the other side of source protection.’
– Sam Sole, Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg
However, protecting your source from harm is one of the only reasons for using a nameless source in your story. Anonymous sources are hard to monitor, can encourage inaccurate reporting and will certainly cause readers to have less faith in the story. But they may also provide first-hand, insider knowledge, important confirmation or leads to additional evidence. Make your final decision based on the specific circumstances of your publication, the source and the story. Come to an agreement with the source about how you will refer to them in your story, and make their description as explicit as it is safe. ‘An environmental scientist working with the forestry ministry’ is better than ‘a scientist’ – unless he/she is the only environmental scientist that the ministry employs.