Reflecting on Sources

According to The Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen “sources are fundamentally important”.

Josie Vine says “sources are everything” to a journalist.

The word source is defined as ‘origin’. All news comes from sources. Sources allow journalists to break news no one else has.

“When someone or something provides you with information, we call them a source,” The News Manual specifies.

“The importance of sources to a journalist cannot be understated: they are a reporter’s meat and drink,” Gill Phillips says.

Primary sources are at the centre of an event or issue. Although primary sources often provide accurate information, The News Manual states it is vital to “double-check and cross-check facts with other sources”.

Reporters and editors should assess the reliability of information. It is important writers are transparent in revealing where information has come from to allow the audience to assess the reliability of information themselves.

Hence, reporters should aim to attribute information to a source. “When media provide information without attribution, audience members are denied an opportunity to consider the source for themselves and to decide how much weight to give to the information in light of who the source is,”The ABC states in the Guide to Attribution and Anonymity of Sources.

Erik Jensen recognises sources can check the accuracy of information to be reported as well as provide original information.

Hard news stories require representative sources. A hard news story on university deregulation will require information from a student union leader as well as the Education Minister to be balanced and use representative sources. This balance of representative sources is important to creating a fair, accurate and truthful report. Sources in soft news or ‘colour’ pieces are often everyday people experiencing the news.

It is expected journalists act ethically when dealing with sources. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics outlines a journalists responsibility to be ethical. It states a journalist must not allow gifts or benefits to undermine their fairness, not exploit people’s ignorance of media practice, must respect grief and privacy and allow opportunities for reply.

Journalists hold a responsibility to be sensitive with sources who have experienced trauma. They must not exploit victims of trauma, people who are unwell, mentally ill or children.

Anything a source says “off the record” must not be reported. “Off the record” information can be used to follow up with another source, but the original source should never be revealed.

Information which may cause harm should be checked extensively with other sources. The Rolling Stones article A Rape on Campus highlights the necessity of cross-checking information. Writer Sabrina Erdely published information based on a single source which ultimately proved to be false. To ensure balance, a person who is criticised must be given a chance for reply.

It is important to be fair and balanced when interviewing sources. Maxine McKew demonstrated the necessity to put aside personal biases and realise subconscious biases in an interview with Pauline Hanson. All opinion has the right to be heard on the public sphere including what one deems to be ‘wrong’ opinion to uphold the values democratic society. Enlightenment theory outlined this philosophy of freedom of speech and opinion. Australian journalism’s antecedents John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Andrew Bent, William Wentworth and Robert Wardell fought for freedom of speech and a free media in colonial Australia.

A Rape on Campus also exemplifies the danger of relying on one source for information. Erdely made the mistake of relying solely on one source without vetting the accuracy of information. Stephen Lamble in News As It Happens recommends discovering “everything you can about a person or issue from as many different sources” as reasonable.

Relationships between sources and journalists should be professional, not personal. Lamble warns journalists to not become personally connected to sources. “If a relationship with a source becomes personal it means you will have a conflict of interest that could place you in a difficult situation,” he says.

Journalists should be aware sources may attempt to manipulate to serve an agenda. Jensen provides police reports as an example. He says they may be run to “pressure a witness”, “flush out a suspect” or be “fundamentally about law enforcement” instead of truth.

Ethically and professionally, an anonymous source should not be revealed. Lamble says agreeing to protect a source is a “potentially momentous undertaking”.

The Australian Broadcasting Company states revelation of an anonymous source can result in “serious potential costs in loss of trust and reduced information flow, both from the source affected and from potential sources who may be deterred”.

But the refusal to reveal the identity of an anonymous source in a court of law can see the journalist heavily fined or jailed. The MEAA Code implies it is unwise to commit to protect the identity of the source if the story is not worth going to jail for.

Protection for journalists and their sources is much stronger in the United States and United Kingdom than in Australia. In 26 states in America, law says journalists cannot be compelled by courts to reveal the identity of a person who has supplied information. In the U.K, journalists are not required to disclose the identity of a source unless in the “interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.”

Protection for journalists and sources in Australia is limited and degraded by recent metadata retention laws. Shield law introduced in New South Wales in 1997 created limited protection because journalists were not required to reveal sources if deemed harmful to their safety. The Australian Federal Government introduced law in 2007 which allowed judges to decide if revealing a source was in the ‘public interest’.

Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus were each fined $7000 in 2007 for contempt of court. They refused to give details of a source of their article detailing the Federal Government’s secret decision to cut war veteran benefits.

Senator Nick Xenophon is aware that journalists’ sources will be compromised by metadata collection. New laws will allow the government to use journalists’ metadata to identify confidential sources. Xenophon says journalists “may as well give the game away” if they are unable to interact with confidential sources without the government knowing. Peter Greste says these laws will have a “chilling effect” on Australian journalism.

Erik Jensen says he thinks there is “nothing dirty about not being able to name your sources.”

“If [newspapers] were compelled to disclose their sources, they would soon be bereft of information which they ought to have,” says Lord Denning. “Their sources would dry up. Wrongdoing would not be disclosed,” he says.

As demonstrated in SBS program Fine Line, committing to ethics and decency when dealing with a source can result in conflict when deciding to publish shocking and personal revelations. John Cleary decided to report Jim Cairns’ affair with Junie Morosey because it was in the public interest.

Chequebook journalism is not considered an ethical journalistic practice in Australia. It encourages lying because sources may believe they must enhance information to be well paid. Paying sources commodifies information, restricting equal media access and resulting in less information in the ‘public sphere.’

Journalism can be described as an art of “seduction” and “betrayal.” Reporters must persuade and gain trust to convince sources to reveal information. It may seem like “betrayal” if a journalist reports against the interests or agenda of the source after they have built a trustful and “seducing” relationship.“Betrayal” of a source is often a necessity for those who report in the public interest.

My contact book is based in the City of Knox. Knox is the community I grew up in and live in now. There are 155,000 residents in Knox as of June 2013. Around 41,000 residents were born overseas and 21% speak a language other than English at home. 28,000 children are under 15 years of age and 25% of residents are aged over 55. More residents work in manufacturing than any other industry and only 28% work in Knox.

Knox prides itself on it’s “leafy green” image. Cutting down street trees due to disease has  been debated recently. The Environment Advisory Committee included in my contact book provides advice to Council on issues of environmental sustainability.  The Knox Environment Society is a community organisation which runs a nursery selling Indigenous Plants. Councillor Darren Pearce has been vocal about cutting down species of street trees for the safety of residents and is listed under “p” to balance sources.

Headspace is a support centre for youth suffering mental health issues. It was established in Knox two years ago. The initiative gained community attention because Knox is one of the few cities to have a centre in the area. The Headspace centre plays an important role in the community as there are 15,500 families with children under 15 in Knox. Hence, I have included it in my contact book.

As Knox residents work in manufacturing more than any other industry, I have included the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union as well as the Victorian Manufacturing Council in my contact book. To balance these sources the Victorian Minister for Industry, Hon Lily D’Ambrosio and the Minister for Manufacturing, Hon David Hodgett MP are listed.

I have included the local senior citizens clubs as Knox has a rapidly ageing population. The number of issues surrounding the elderly appear to be rising in the Knox Leader (local paper). In addition to the senior citizens clubs, the Knox Active Ageing Committee, Cr John Mortimore and Cr Nicole Seymour who are on the committee are listed.

The Knox Community Safety Advisory Committee may be an important contact. In recent years, a rising concern for safety and an increase in hoon driving has drawn debate. The local police are a crucial contact for issues on community safety. CCTV cameras were recently fitted in the Boronia shopping area. I have included the Australian Attorney-General’s Department as a contact because they funded the introduction of CCTV through the Safer Suburbs Program.

Small businesses are important to the community. The Small Business Mentoring Service provides support for small businesses in Knox. I have also included the Knox Economic Development Unit to provide an alternative voice for small businesses.

The importance of sources to a journalist cannot be understated. Josie Vine says “journalists live and die by their contacts.” Lamble acknowledges “without a full contact book, [a] journalist will not last long in the profession”.


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