In journalism, a source is a person, publication, or knowledge other record or document that gives timely information. Outside journalism, sources are sometimes known as "news sources". Examples of sources include but are not limited to official records, publications or broadcasts, officials in government or business, organizations or corporations, witnesses of crime, accidents or other events, and people involved with or affected by a news event or issue.
According to Shoemaker (1996) and McQuail (1994), there are a multitude of factors that tend to condition the acceptance of sources as bona fide by investigative journalists. Reporters are expected to develop and cultivate sources, especially if they regularly cover a specific topic, known as a "beat". Beat reporters must, however, be cautious of becoming too close to their sources. Reporters often, but not always, give greater leeway to sources with little experience. For example, sometimes a person will say they don't want to talk, and then proceed to talk; if that person is not a public figure, reporters are less likely to use that information. Journalists are also encouraged to be skeptical without being cynical, as per the saying "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," popularized by the City News Bureau of Chicago. As a rule of thumb, but especially when reporting on controversy, reporters are expected to use multiple sources.
Even if writers cannot report certain information directly, they can use "off the record" information to uncover related facts, or to find other sources who are willing to speak on the record. This is especially useful in investigative journalism. Information about a surprise event or breaking news, whether on or off the record, is known as a "tip-off". Information that leads to the uncovering of more interesting information is called a "lead".
The identity of anonymous sources is sometimes revealed to senior editors or a news organization's lawyers, who would be considered bound by the same confidentiality as the journalist. (Lawyers are generally protected from subpoena in these cases by attorney–client privilege.) Legal staff may need to give counsel about whether it is advisable to publish certain information, or about court proceedings that may attempt to learn confidential information. Senior editors are in the loop to prevent reporters from fabricating non-existent anonymous sources and to provide a second opinion about how to use the information obtained, how to or how not to identify sources, and whether other options should be pursued.
The use of anonymous sources has always been controversial. Some news outlets insist that anonymous sources are the only way to obtain certain information, while others prohibit the use of unnamed sources at all times. News organizations may impose safeguards, such as requiring that information from an anonymous source be corroborated by a second source before it can be printed.
But prominent reports based on anonymous sources have sometimes been proved to be incorrect. For instance, much of the O. J. Simpson reporting from unnamed sources was later deemed inaccurate. Newsweek retracted a story about a Qur'an's allegedly being flushed down a toilet—the story had been based upon one unnamed military source. The Los Angeles Times retracted an article that implicated Sean "Diddy" Combs in the beating of Tupac Shakur. The original article was based on documents and several unnamed sources. When reporting on the original story, the Associated Press noted that "[n]one of the sources was named".
After the embarrassment, a news organization will often "clamp down" on the guidelines for using unnamed sources, but those guidelines are often forgotten after the scandal dies down. One study found that large newspapers' use of anonymous sources dropped dramatically between 2003 and 2004. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research group, found use of anonymous sources dropped from 29 percent of all articles in 2003 to just seven percent in 2004, following widespread embarrassment of media after the Bush administration claims that Iraq had WMD were found to be without basis.
In the U.S., this practice is generally not well seen. However, lengthy lists of reporters' sexual involvement with sources were published by American Journalism Review and by The Los Angeles Times.
Whether in a formal, sit-down interview setting or an impromptu meeting on the street, some sources request that all or part of the encounter not be captured in an audio or video recording ("tape"), but continue speaking to the reporter. As long as the interview is not confidential, the reporter may report the information given by the source, even repeating direct quotes (perhaps scribbled on a notepad or recalled from memory). This often shows up in broadcasts as "John Brown declined to be interviewed on camera, but said" or simply "a spokesperson said".
Some interview subjects are uncomfortable being recorded. Some are afraid they will be inarticulate or feel like a fool if the interview is broadcast. Others might be uncooperative or distrust the motives or competence of the journalist, and wish to prevent them from being able to broadcast an unflattering sound bite or part of the interview out of context. Professional public relations officers know that having the reporter repeat their words, rather than being heard directly on the air, will blunt the effect of their words. By refusing to be taped or on the air, a person avoids having an audience see or hear them being uncomfortable (if they have unpleasant news); it also permits the individual to be anonymous or identified only by title.
In journalism, attribution is the identification of the source of reported information. Journalists' ethical codes normally address the issue of attribution, which is sensitive because in the course of their work, journalists may receive information from sources who wish to remain anonymous. In investigative journalism, important news stories often depend on such information. For example, the Watergate scandal which led to the downfall of U.S. president Richard Nixon was in part exposed by information revealed by an anonymous source ("Deep Throat") to investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Divulging the identity of a confidential source is frowned upon by groups representing journalists in many democracies. In many countries, journalists have no special legal status, and may be required to divulge their sources in the course of a criminal investigation, as any other citizen would be. Even in jurisdictions that grant journalists special legal protections, journalists are typically required to testify if they bear witness to a crime.
Journalists defend the use of anonymous sources for a variety of reasons:
The use of anonymous sources is also criticized by some journalists and government officials:
There are several categories of "speaking terms" (agreements concerning attribution) that cover information conveyed in conversations with journalists. In the UK the following conventions are generally accepted:
However, confusion over the precise meaning of "unattributable" and "off-the-record" has led to more detailed formulations:
|"Chatham House Rule"||Named after Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), which introduced the rule in 1927: "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed".|
|"Lobby terms":||In the UK accredited journalists are allowed in to the otherwise restricted Members' Lobby on the basis that information received there is never attributed and events there are not reported. "Lobby terms" are agreed to extend this arrangement to cover discussions that take place elsewhere.|
|"Not for attribution"||The comments may be quoted directly, but the source may be identified only in general terms (e.g., "a government insider" or "company spokesperson"). In practice such general descriptions may be agreed with the interviewee.|
|"On background"||The thrust of the briefing may be reported (and the source characterized in general terms as above) but direct quotes may not be used.|
|"Deep background"||A term that is used in the United States, though not consistently. Most journalists would understand "deep background" to mean that the information may not be included in the article but is used by the journalist to enhance his or her view of the subject matter, or to act as a guide to other leads or sources. Most deep background information is confirmed elsewhere before being reported. Alternative meanings exist; for instance, a White House spokesman said, "Deep background means that the info presented by the briefers can be used in reporting but the briefers can't be quoted." Deep background can also mean the information received can be used in the story, but cannot be attributed to any source. Depending on the publication, information on deep background is sometimes attributed in terms such as "[Publication name] has learned" or "It is understood by [publication name]."|
Being "on background" means that they tell things to reporters, but those reporters agree to not specifically attribute that information to a person by name.