Writing for the Web: Sources - Second part26. September 2012 - 20:17 — Dejan Georgievski
Last week, we touched on the topic of sources of information and we asked several questions that we shall now try to answer. As we already said, we need to be completely open when talking to a source and inform it in advance what we intend to do with the information he or she will provide, how we intend to use it and for what purpose.
That is more than important having in mind the fact that without sources there would hardly be reporting, there would be little journalism or investigative journalism (we should note here that we do belong to the school of thought that believes that any journalism is by default investigative journalism).
In the ideal world, anybody should talk freely about a problem or wrongdoing he or she or the whole society faces, but the world we live in is far from ideal and sources will insist on keeping their anonymity and confidentiality. For that reason, a set of rules has been established throughout the years that the source has to be informed about when taking a statement or doing an interview, and they refer to the ways in which the information provided by a source can be used, whether we can quote it and how to attribute the source.
The terms we will mention here mostly come from Anglo-Saxon journalism, but they have been adopted and used by journalists all over the world.
When a conversation is held "On-the-record", it means that it can be quoted fully and that the journalists has the agreement to disclose the full name of his source.
If the sources insists that a conversation is “Unattributable”, it means that the information can be used, but the name of the source can’t be mentioned. In agreement with the source, one can use some more general attribution like "our source in this or that ministry”, “our source in the management (of the given company)", "high-ranking local official", etc.
When a conversation is held "Off-the-record", the sources states that the information can't be quoted or used in that form, but can be used for further investigation, as direction. The journalist may also be allowed to use that information if it finds another source.
Because of common disagreements over the exact meaning of "Unattributable” and "Off-the-record”, several more detailed sets of rules have been developped over the years (the Chattam House Rules, Lobby Terms, Not for Attribution, On background, Deep Background). You can find the basic information about those rules in the Wikipedia entry on sources, or you can "google" those terms and learn more about them.
We have to be aware at all times that in many cases the sources of information, especially whistle-blowers, persons who expose criminal or corruptive activities or discrimination, risk a lot by the mere fact that they talk about them with us.
Apart from journalists, many NGOs, in their work, use sources that may enter huge risks to present some information to the public. Organisations working on prevention of corruption, organisations that work with addicts, victims of violence or human trafficking, sexual workers, etc., they all belong to that category. In all those cases the sources may cross some very dangerous people.
We said it before - without good sources, one can't really do investigative work or fight, in the case of NGOs, the social evils like corruption, organized crime, human trafficking, etc. For that reason, it is important to protect one’s sources and respect their wishes and instructions referring to the way the information they provide is used and the way they are named or attributed. Otherwise, we may soon find that not too many people are willing to talk to us.
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