Guidelines for re-tweeting or re-posting information found in social media

June 7, 2010

Social Media Panel Members: Bert Bruser, Tim Currie (Chair), Kirk LaPointe and Ellen Van Wageningen

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked the Social Media panel to propose guidelines for re-tweeting, or forwarding through social networks, information that originates from followers. The issue applies mainly to using Twitter in breaking news situations but it also applies to re-posting information in other social networks such as Facebook.

The primary issue is the risk of distributing untrue information. A related issue is the risk of seeming to endorse the opinions of others.

To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations and the opinions of leading commentators on the issue.


The power of social networks to amplify breaking news reports was illustrated in January 2009 when Florida entrepreneur Janis Krums tweeted a photo of a U.S. Airways plane in New York's Hudson River. Krums had only 170 followers at the time but retweets resulted in thousands of peopleviewing the photo within minutes. The event underscored the swiftness of the medium and the potential for crowdsourced reporting from eyewitnesses first on the scene. It highlighted the growing importance of social networks in gathering information that can supplement — and improve — the work of reporters.

Five months later in June 2009, Iranians produced a flood of reports on Twitter, which offered news organizations real-time information about the protests in the country. Government suppression of independent reporting meant it was difficult to get information from other sources. The Project for Excellence in Journalism called it a "Twitter Revolution." Some journalists used the stream of information to share the perspectives of Iranians and help their social media audience better understand the event. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge re-tweeted a list of Iranians on Twitter that was created by blogger Dave Winer. He argued he was sharing information without providing judgment on it; he was letting his audience decide how they would treat it. However, journalist and academic Julie Posetti argued Laforge's action amounted to approving the list and endorsing its authenticity. She stated, "Professional journalists will be judged more harshly by society if they RT (retweet) content which later proves to be false -- particularly in the context of a crisis."

In November 2009, news organizations repeated Twitter mentions of multiple gunmen in a shooting incident at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. In fact, an army psychiatrist was the sole shooter. The Radio Television Digital News Association argues in its ethical guidelines that the news organizations used proper instincts in repeating the information — even though it was later proved to be false. If it was true, it could have saved lives. Still, the association's guidelines state: "Journalists must source information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the information is fluid and could be unreliable."

Perhaps the most well-known episode of re-tweeting involves Mathew Ingram, formerly the Globe and Mail's communities editor.

In October 2008, Ingram tweeted that a citizen media update on CNN's iReport was claiming that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The iReport piece led to a significant — but temporary — decline in the price of Apple's stock. Ingram soon found out the report was untrue and issued a clarification but he was sharply criticized for his actions. In his blog he later called his initial decision a mistake, saying he should have waited to verify it. But nine months later, he told CBC Radio's Ira Basen for his radio documentary "I might have posted it anyway." He called the event "a sign of journalism as a process working," suggesting that, instead of being absent in the real-time social flow of information, journalists should "rely on people to make their own judgments."

CUNY School of Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis calls this perspective "journalism as beta" and argues that forwarding unconfirmed information is acceptable journalistic practice as long as journalists label the information as unconfirmed. He says web culture is "a call to collaborate" — and likens the demands on the audience to that of 24-hour cable news, "where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference between what is known now and what can be confirmed later."

Journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen agrees, saying, "One of the beauties of social media is its fluidity. It would be impossible for all of the millions of people on Twitter to verify every tweet before passing it on. Twitter isn't a news medium. I think there's an expectation that Twitter is the start of a conversation to prompt people to find out more, not the be all and end all."However, the practice of "re-tweet first, verify later" would seem at odds with established journalistic practice of verifying before publishing. The Associated Press's social media guidelines, as disclosed to, state: "Don't report things or break news that we haven't published, no matter the format, and that includes retweeting unconfirmed information not fit for AP's wires." The implied argument is that a journalist or news organization's reputation is built on a record of accurate "publishing" — in any form. Being a reliable source of information at all times is paramount. The risk of distributing untrue information threatens an organization's reputation.

Journalist Robert Niles however, argues, that the effect of such a policy is that news organizations become absent in the social media conversation of breaking news events. He argues instead that: "smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting." He states further "Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But ... traditional newsroom silence on rumors don't make them go away."

In considering these views, ethicist Stephen Ward suggests that any guidelines balance the strengths of social media, including "its love of collaboration and transparency." However, it must also adhere to a plurality of ethical principles as to "how well they honour or violate the principles of journalism as a whole."

Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry argues against blanket prohibitions in social media policies, saying such phrasing reflects "old-media opaqueness and control, rather than new-media transparency." He argues instead for social media policies that include "recognition of the fact that social media help us collaborate, continue and improve our stories."

Overview of Newsroom Guidelines

A growing number of media organizations are establishing guidelines for social media use. Most of these policies see social media as an important tool for newsgathering and audience engagement. At the same time they caution against publishing anything that brings the organization into disrepute. Many policies address using Twitter as a reporting tool. However, relatively few address the issue of journalists forwarding information through social media in an effort to build community and participate in real-time conversations of news events.

The following is a summary of the ones that do:

The L.A. Times policy is similar to AP's. It applies traditional standards of publishing to Twitter use, stating: "Authentication is essential: Verify sourcing after collecting information online. When transmitting information online – as in re-Tweeting material from other sources – apply the same standards and level of caution you would in more formal publication."

The BBC, however, encourages re-tweeting while cautioning users against appearing to endorse the content. It states (PDF): "It may not be enough to write on your BBC microblog's biography page that "retweeting" does not signify endorsement, particularly if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy. Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the "tweet" you have selected, making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice and where you are quoting someone else's."

Reuters' policy states generally that material from social media sites "can help us enhance our reporting, and our reputation, and this trend should be embraced." But it encourages people to be "wary of information or images posted by Twitter etc users" and advises: "Strict criteria should be applied in deciding whether to use it, and if we do so, we must be clear about what we know and don't know about its provenance." Reuters allows for "'retweeting' (re-publishing) someone else's scoop," but encourages a critical eye. It states: "It's simple to share a link on Twitter, Facebook and other networks but as a Reuters journalist if you repeat something that turns out to be a hoax, or suggests you support a particular line of argument, then you risk undermining your own credibility and that of Reuters News."

The Washington Post's social media policy states generally that "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything... that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times advises against issuing reports of breaking news on Twitter, stating: "While Twitter represents a growing audience for us online ... we should generally post breaking news first on the site, then tweet the URL."


The panel concludes that participation in real-time conversations can be an important newsgathering and audience-building tool for journalists and the organizations they represent. It represents a new and valuable resource that can enhance journalism.

However, forwarding information that is ultimately proven untrue comes with risks that include:

  • Harming people. Information could give away the location of a police tactical unit in a hostage situation or give a person contemplating a suicide a greater audience. It could also cause a panic if it mentioned that a bomb had been found in an office tower.
  • Moving financial markets: Information about a business or a business leader could lead to rapid rises or declines in stock prices.
  • Violating common decency: Information could cause undue emotional distress to people if it identifies victims (by name or social media username), especially if relatives have not been notified.

The panel stresses that people who work in the news media should always strive to produce the most accurate and credibly sourced work they can. In doing so, the best approach is always to verify information before forwarding it through social networks.

Traditional journalistic values remain unchanged as new technologies emerge. The challenge facing journalists is to apply these values to rapidly changing means of communication.

However, the panel acknowledges that gathering and sharing information within social media constitutes a process of journalism, not a finished product. Consequently, frequent updates and clarifications are crucial.

The panel acknowledges that criteria for forwarding information would be useful. However, it views forwarding information through social networks as a rapidly evolving and  amorphous practice that makes establishing criteria difficult. For example, journalists would normally apply different standards of verification depending on the context of the information being forwarded. A surprising tweet with strong news value might require corroboration, whereas a lighthearted observation in the form of opinion might require none.

The decision to forward unverified information should always weigh the value of getting information out to the audience quickly with the risk of causing harm. In particular, journalists should apply extreme caution and skepticism to surprising information tweeted by third parties — especially when it reflects negatively on a person or an organization.

If journalists choose to forward information through social networks that they cannot verify, the panel suggests they consider the following guidelines:

  • Journalists should, at all times, seek to verify the source of the information by applying the usual skepticism to the source of unverified information.

    For example:

    • Who is the source?
    • How is the source likely to know this? What is their ability to obtain the information first hand?
    • What does the source's past history say about their credibility? Does the source have some record in their social media history of seriousness and reputable behaviour?
    • Where does the source get funding?
    • What are the source's possible political allegiances?

Some useful resources are contained in Craig Kanalley's How to verify a Tweet.

  • Journalists should issue updates, including corrections, on the status of their follow-up investigations promptly and frequently. (Eg. "The original report was untrue" or "We can't confirm the report")

Some good advice is available in Craig Silverman's article on correcting tweets.

  • Journalists should take note of Twitter's Verified Accounts feature, which authenticates a user's identify, and use it as a tool for building trusted relationships with Twitter sources.

Read More

Final briefing on news blackouts

News Blackouts panel members:  Ethan Faber (Chair), Sadia Zamanm, Ivor Shapiro

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked this panel to explore the following questions posed by the CAJ's Board:

Under what circumstances should outlets agree to news blackouts like the one media agreed to on the Mellissa Fung kidnapping? What are the pitfalls, what questions should editors ask, is there a different standard that should be applied to journalists as opposed to other kidnap victims?

To study this issue, the panel looked into several cases of abductions and hostage-taking involving journalists and non-journalists where blackouts were requested or not, and complied with or not. In addition, the panel contacted senior people within several leading news organizations, including The Canadian Press, CBC, CTV, Global News, Canwest News Service, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Ottawa Citizen. This briefing summarizes what we learned and our conclusions.

To see the survey, click here. For the briefing's list of cases information, click here. For the CBC's guidelines, click here.


It is impossible to do a complete count but we know that many news agencies from around the world have had employees kidnapped in Iraq or Afghanistan.  We also know that in many of these cases, news blackouts have been requested by the journalists employers and most of those requests have been granted by the vast majority of so-called mainstream media outlets.  Recent, high profile examples of kidnappings and subsequent news blackouts include the CBC’s Mellissa Fung and The New York Times’ David Rohde and Stephen Farrell and their respective interpreters/fixers.  Links to background articles on these and other cases are attached at the bottom of this briefing.  Our research reveals that besides the CBC and the Times, blackout requests have also been made by CTV, NBC and CBS, among others.

It seems safe to assume that in all of these cases the employers argued that a blackout was necessary to protect the safety of the victim.  There appears to be a widely held belief that negotiations with kidnappers could be more difficult if they become aware that they’re holding a “big fish.”  Another concern is that kidnappers could become spooked by publicity and more inclined to kill their captive and disappear. The belief that these dangers may generally attach to reporting is neither supported nor refuted by convincing evidence, but it is understandable that no one would want to be the one potentially causing death to a kidnap victim.

While there are many examples of blackout requests stemming from war-zone kidnappings, it should be pointed out that news outlets may also receive blackout requests under different circumstances.  The most common domestic example of this would be next of kin notification, in which local police ask the media to refrain from identifying a deceased person until the family has been informed.  This example does not appear to be controversial.  Local police might also request a blackout while investigating a kidnapping, hostage-taking or other criminal investigation, but these requests are not so straightforward.  On April 4th, 2006, a UBC student was kidnapped at gunpoint in a Vancouver intersection in broad daylight.  After giving interviews to reporters about the incident, the Vancouver Police suddenly asked for a media blackout, but when asked, the department failed to provide local newsrooms with an explanation for the request.  That evening, one local television station made the decision to refuse the request and broadcast the story.  The rest of the local media soon followed. There have also been suggestions that ethnicity could sometimes be a factor in deciding whether or not to ask for a news blackout, but the panel has not discovered evidence related to this contention.

The Problem

Our sources have identified two key ethical issues that arise for news managers when faced with a blackout request.  A key value held dearly by journalists is that information of public interest should be conveyed to the public.  There appears to be a strong consensus that we can deviate from this approach only in exceptional circumstances and there is concern about surrendering editorial decision making to an outside source.  Former CTV News Director Tom Walters told the panel:

As I see it, the problem with any request to suppress information is not just that it incites a brawl between competing visions of the public interest.  It’s that, by definition, it requires us to accept a generally unacceptable premise:  that the facts should be held hostage in an effort to control the way someone might react to them.  And it requires us to accept a generally unacceptable demand; that we choose information not on the basis of editorial judgment, but in order to engineer a particular outcome.

The other key issue is whether a blackout request involving the kidnapping of a journalist should be treated any differently than a request involving someone in another profession.


Every journalist weve spoken to or seen quoted in the literature about this issue agrees that blackout requests need to be considered very carefully and require newsrooms to gather facts on which to make a decision.  Most agree in that often-used phrase, "no story is worth a human life." On the other hand, most agree, too, that the available facts seldom, if ever, dictate a clear response to the blackout request. Current CTV News Director and former Vancouver Sun and CBC reporter Margo Harper told the panel:

If the event is a kidnapping, where authorities are asking for a blackout to ensure the safety of the victim, we must be satisfied that the act of reporting will materially endanger the individual involved.  We must ask ourselves:  are we convinced that our actions in reporting the kidnapping could lead to the death of the victim, or dramatically compound the negotiations potentially leading to the release?  If the answer to those questions is yes, then there is an argument for a blackout.  If the answer is no, then the argument for broadcasting what we know is compelling.

Walters asks a similar question,

Does it serve the compelling need of a legitimate interest?  And how much harm does it do to the public interest?

In addition, Paul Knox, a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Globe and Mail, cautioned in a December 2008 J-Source column against setting too much store by security experts' recommendations:

Some say listen to the experts. But the experts - especially those paid to advise the employers of kidnapped personnel - are hardly impartial observers. If professional security consultants had their way, stories about kidnappings would rarely appear except after the fact.

On the issue of whether requests involving kidnapped journalists should be treated differently than requests for blackouts involving people in other professions, the news managers we’ve spoken with say no.  There is clearly a perception that journalists may be protecting their own because of the considerable coverage of other kidnappings, but that perceived double standard may be a result of the contacts newsroom managers have with other decision makers in the industry.  When a journalist is kidnapped, their news managers back home know who to call to make a blackout request before the story begins to leak out.  That kind of quick action is not necessarily possible when people in other professions are kidnapped, and by the time a blackout request is made in those circumstances, the story may have already been widely reported.


Based on its study and interviews, the panels finds that:

  • It is not possible to assess to what extent blackouts affect the outcome of abductions and hostage-taking events.
  • More blackouts have been requested, and agreed to, where journalists were victims of abductions or taken hostage, than is the case with non-journalists.
  • Journalists involved in decision-making about blackouts agree that a double standard should not exist, but in practice journalists are more likely to benefit from having closer relations within the industry.
  • Blackout requests are treated as exceptions and reviewed on a case-by-case basis, usually by the top editors of the organizations.
  • Decision-makers say that a party requesting the blackout must provide strong reasons to support the request, especially as to why reporting is likely to increase risk.
  • No news organization has a comprehensive policy dealing specifically with blackout requests, but the CBC comes closest in its "Guidelines on Covering Kidnapping and Hostage Situations."


Making the wrong decision on whether or not to grant a news blackout has great potential for harm - harm to the public interest, harm to the credibility of the news media, and harm to the individuals involved.  Given the risks on all sides, and the complexity and individuality of the cases, the panel understands that a one-size-fits-all policy would not be adequate to address what will always be a difficult issue for newsrooms.

Nevertheless, the panel suggests that news organizations should ask the following questions when considering a blackout request:

  • Have strong, specific reasons been provided to support the blackout request? Are those reasons rooted in specifics of this case or a general assumption that reporting in this type of instance may result in harm? Is that assumption supported by evidence?
  • Are we convinced that our actions in reporting the kidnapping could lead to the death of the victim, or dramatically compound the negotiations potentially leading to the release?
  • Is the requested blackout short-term or time-limited? If not, will the request be reviewed after a defined period of time?
  • Is a special favour being asked to protect a journalist? If so, would we agree to this request if the person being protected were not a journalist?
  • Have senior people within our organization as well as news people in the field been consulted about the request, and their various views taken into account?
  • Have we weighed the potential harm to individuals against the potential of harm to the public interest and harm to the credibility of the news media?
  • How will our response to this request compare to our responses to similar situations in the past, and how may we justify a perceived inconsistency with such precedents?
  • Are we committed to making full disclosure about the circumstances of the blackout once the perceived impediment to reporting has passed?

More reading:

Times reporter freed from captivity, news blackout lifted (Sep 10/09 - includes background links)

Public Editor: Journalistic Ideals, Human Values (Clark Hoyt, July 4/09) [requires subscription or database access].

Reporting on a kidnapping: do journalists get special treatment? (July 6/09)

Kidnapped Times reporter escapes after seven months: news blackout lifted (Jun 22/09)

News blackouts quite common (Melissa Wilson, Apr 20/09)

In covering kidnappings, news calls are all about the details (Paul Knox, Dec 2/08)

Truth or consequences? The Mellissa Fung case (Stephen Ward, Nov 17/08)

Read More

Protection of sources

From: CAJ Ethics Committee
Re:  Protection of Sources 
November 10, 2009

The Board’s referral:
How far should reporters go to protect their sources and are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source? For example, thinking of the Maher Arar case and possibly the Charkaoui case that the Montreal Gazette is involved in, if CSIS or the RCMP or some government agency has leaked erroneous information to discredit someone, is a reporter’s obligation or promise to keep a source confidential rendered void? This question, along with a private members bill on source protection drafted by Bloc MP Serge Menard, consumed the board last year and sparked some extremely interesting debates. We want advice on shield laws, whether blanket protection is advisable or whether there are some occasions where a reporter ought to reveal a source.

Essentially, this boils down to three questions:

1. How far should reporters go to protect their sources?

2. Are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source?

3. How should these principles be applied in any shield law?

1.   How far should reporters go to protect their sources? The first question is adequately answered in the existing CAJ Code of Ethics. (See appendix). It states that confidential or anonymous sources should only be used as a last resort. Any arrangement about how far a journalist is willing to go to protect the sources identity should be clearly spelled out.

2.  Are there any cases in which it is acceptable or morally advisable to reveal a source? In certain rare circumstances, yes.When journalists use confidential sources, their contract and their obligation is, as always, first and foremost to the public, not to the source. Revealing a source would be justified, for example, if a government source or agency leaked erroneous information – but only if they knew it to be wrong, not if they too were fooled or misled. Governments, police or other groups often leak information with the deliberate attempt to “spin” the news.  If they have lied to you to get their version of the story out, they deserve to be exposed. That is why it is all the more important to check your sources and their motives.

RECOMMENDATION: If a source knowingly lies or hides an important part of the truth about a major issue or fact in the story, your obligation is to the truth, not the source. He or she has broken his contract with you and you can break your promise of confidentiality to the source.

Reveal the minimum:

In some cases, a source may release you of your obligation to keep their identity confidential. Or he or she may have broken the deal by lying.

Even then, you should reveal only the minimum – the name only, for example. Not necessarily the details of how and when you met, what documents were handed over, etc. In one case involving a member of the ethics committee, military police were investigating an army source who was quoted anonymously in a book about criminal gangs. The source had subsequently been beaten up by gangs and investigators were checking into whether the published interview had anything to do with his beating. The source was cooperating with the investigation and authorized the journalist to reveal his name. Even in those circumstances, the journalist declined to discuss what, if any documents the sources passed on or any other details of their encounter.  This is necessary to protect all your other sources and your professional integrity. If people found out journalists were disclosing not just names of our sources – even with their permission -- but other details of your information-gathering process, your confidential sources would dry up and your investigations would be impeded.

Difficult questions:

How far should media companies and journalists go to protect sources? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is it ethical to destroy a document that might reveal a source?
  • Some media outlets insist that at least one senior management or editor know the full identity of a reporter’s source (to prevent fraud and other errors). But some journalists feel in a era where management and bosses change frequently, that could be dangerous.
  • Some media companies allow reporters to keep safety deposit boxes off-site that only they have access to. Is that necessary or going too far?

3. How should these principles be applied in any shield law?

The CAJ board is either split or uncertain as to whether to support federal shield laws to protect confidential sources of journalists, and has asked the ethics committee for advice.

The question boils down to:

Under what circumstances, if any, is it ethical for a journalist – when ordered to do so by a court – to break a promise to keep a source confidential?

Let’s look at the state of Canada’s laws, some international examples (Belgium,the US and Brazil) and what we can recommend to the board.

Canada’s laws How we respond to each of these issues will depend to some extent on existing laws in Canada relating to protection of sources.  There are no federal shield laws, and the common law, for the first time in more than twenty years, is now before the Supreme Court of Canada in the National Post v. Canada case.  The case was argued in the spring, and a decision could come at any time during the next few months.

In the Post case, the lower court judge placed great weight on the importance of freedom of the press.  She emphasized the importance of protecting confidential sources to ensure that stories of public interest continue to be brought to light.  The judge concluded that the documents in question would only nominally advance the police investigation that was going on, but that disclosure of them would damage freedom of expression.  She ruled that the documents did not have to be turned over by the National Post.

The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision and ordered the documents produced.  The Court of Appeal recognized that the gathering and dissemination of news and information without undue state interference is an integral component of the s. 2(b) right to freedom of the press.  But the court ruled that this does not guarantee that journalists have an automatic right to protect the confidentiality of their sources.  What is required is a balancing of the interests of the media and the interests of the state, or society.

Subject to what happens in the Supreme Court of Canada, the law can be stated:  confidential sources must be disclosed where, in weighing the various interests of the media, including recognition of the importance that confidential sources play in the proper dissemination of information, and the state, including the administration of justice, the balance tips in favour of the state.  How this balance tips in each case will of course depend on the facts and the prejudices of the court hearing the case.

Menard’s Bill:

It is impossible to predict what the SCC will do with this.  And until the SCC makes its decision, my view is that it would be extremely difficult to advise the CAJ on shield laws, or to answer the question set out at the top of this memo.

Bill C-426, the private member’s bill designed to protect journalists’ sources that was given first reading in April, 2007, and is now dead, basically said that no journalist shall be required to disclose a confidential source, unless disclosure is in the public interest.

Such a bill would not really change the existing law, as articulated by the Ontario Court of Appeal in the National Post case.  The bill, like the common law, calls for a balancing of the interests of the media and those of the state.

Both the bill, and the common law, recognize that there are circumstances where state interests require a journalist to break his promise and divulge a source.

Belgium law:

In Belgium, a law adopted in 2005 and considered a very good one by Reporters Without Borders, gives extensive protection to journalists. It allows them to shield not only the identity of their sources, but also any documents, video or other information that could lead to the revelation of the source’s identity.

This law is not a free pass for journalists. The law lays out 4 strict criteria that must be met to oblige a journalist to identify a source:

  1. A judge’s order
  2. The information demanded must be needed to prevent the commission of “a major crime that may be dangerous for the physical integrity of an individual or individuals”
  3. The information demanded must be “crucial for the prevention” of such crimes
  4. There must no other way to obtain that information

United States:

About 40 states in the U.S. have shield laws and for the most part these laws recognize that a journalist must reveal a source in certain circumstances.

At the federal level, the US Congress is currently studying a “media shield” bill that would require prosecutors to exhaust other methods for finding the source of the information before subpoenaing a reporter, and would balance investigators’ interests with “the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information.” It could protect reporters from being imprisoned if they refuse to disclose confidential sources who leak material about national security.

The House has already approved a version of the shield bill, but it has stalled in the Senate.The Obama administration opposes the legislation and is seeking amendments so that protection of journalists and their sources would not apply to leaks of a matter deemed to cause “significant” harm to national security. Moreover, judges would be instructed to be deferential to executive branch assertions about whether a leak caused or was likely to cause such harm, according to officials familiar with the proposal. (Source: New York Times)


The Brazilian Constitution protects the “confidentiality of the source, when necessary to professional activity”, which includes doctors and priests, for example. In relation to journalists,  the Brazilian Supreme Court has interpreted that as an absolute protection, giving journalists a right to non-disclosure of sources and information against any sort of sanctions, whether administrative, criminal or civil, including court remedies. In practice, a judge cannot order a journalist to provide a name or a document used in a news piece. Of note, it is only the journalists’ right to silence that is absolute, not what’s eventually published, so journalists and publishers are still liable for the content they publish.

The absolute protection enjoyed in Brazil is probably too simplistic and politically unattainable in Canada, but it stands as an example.

RECOMMENDATION: No shield law will ever give absolute protection to sources. The laws will always try to strike some kind of balance or trade-off. It is pointless to ask for a law that gives 100% unbreakable protection of sources (even lawyers, doctors or priests don’t have that kind of confidentiality protection.)

So either the CAJ opposes any kind of shield law if it thinks no law will ever go far enough, or it decides what trade-offs or balances are acceptable.

APPENDIX: Use of confidential and anonymous sources [EXCERPTED FROM CAJ’S ETHIC GUIDELINES]

A. When is it appropriate to use them:

We should strive to fully identify the sources in our stories – for credibility and accountability. When sources are secret, the reader or audience has less information on which to judge the reliability of the source’s comments. Also, anonymity might encourage the source to make irresponsible statements.

However, confidential sources can be a vital tool in the free flow of information. There can be clear and pressing reasons to protect anonymity. In print media, we may conceal the identity of interview subjects by changing their names or by not naming the source. In broadcast, we may protect identities through digital or other technical methods, such as  concealing an interviewee’s face or distorting their voice.

We should use such methods only when the participation of the subject puts them at risk of harm or personal hardship (i.e., a whistleblower who might lose his/her job, or a mole within organized crime.)

BHow they should be identified:

We will explain the need for anonymity to our readers and audiences. Confidential sources should be identified as accurately as possible by affiliation or status. (For example, a “senior military source” must be both senior and in the military.)

We will identify a source from a critical or opposing side of a controversy as such. Any vested interest or potential bias on the part of a source must be revealed.

C. How they should be checked:

Use of anonymous sources requires the prior approval of at least one senior editorial person (or manager) who knows the full identity of the source. This ensures editorial control, verification and honesty. The disclosure of sources among journalists within a news organization is not the same as the public disclosure of sources.

We must know the full identity of the anonymous source (e.g., full name, phone number, method of contact, history and background). “Anonymous” does not mean we know little about the person. It means we know everything, and are offering an agreed-upon level of protection.

More than one source should be used to verify a story or fact. If only one source is available, we must say so.

We will not allow anonymous sources to take cheap shots at individuals or organizations. We will independently corroborate facts, if we get them from a source we do not name.

D. How they should be protected:

Promising sources that we will keep their identities confidential is not enough. We must spell out, precisely, two things:

  • what the level of confidentiality is
  • how far you are willing to go to protect the source

There are three levels of confidentiality:

Not for attribution: We may quote statements directly but the source may not be named, although a general description of his or her position may be given (“a government official,” or “a party insider”). In TV and radio, the identity may be shielded by changing the voice or appearance.

On background: We may use the thrust of statements and generally describe the source, but we may not use direct quotes.

Off the record: We may not report the information, which can be used solely to help our own understanding or perspective. There is not much point in knowing something if it can't be reported, so this undertaking should be used sparingly, if at all.

We will make it clear from the start how far we are willing to go in protecting a source.

We may be ordered by a court or judicial inquiry to divulge confidential sources upon threat of jail. If you are willing to go to jail to protect a source, say so. Otherwise, spell out the conditions. To protect your credibility or your company’s finances, you may tell the source you will have to reveal their identity in order to win a damaging lawsuit.

Make it clear that if a source lies or misleads you, all agreements are off.

We should not make any commitments to anonymous sources without consultation with senior management. Journalists should be wary about entering into arrangements that they cannot fulfill.  Sometimes sources request additional protection. For example, they may ask for legal assistance or protection if they are revealed or endangered. If you and your employer agree this is reasonable, spell out the terms.

When promising confidentiality we should bear in mind that Canadian journalists are not protected by “shield laws,” as in the United States. However, an Ontario Superior Court judge has recognized that forcing journalists to break promises of confidentiality would seriously harm the media’s constitutional right to gather and disseminate information.

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Policy paper on editorial independence

"Problems arise when editors publish material that offends powerful individuals or groups, but that’s exactly why editorial independence is needed. Journals should be on the side of the powerless not the powerful, the governed not the governors. If readers once hear that important, relevant, and well argued articles are being suppressed or that articles are published simply to fulfill hidden political agendas, then the credibility of the publication collapses — and everybody loses.”

British Medical Journal, 2004


In recent years, the credibility of print, broadcast and online journalists has been eroded by frequent accounts of news stories spiked or killed because of pressure from advertisers or from owners wielding their personal political views. That has left the impression among reporters and citizens alike that there exists a quiet assault on the ability of journalists to give a fair account of all sides of an issue, without meddling from advertisers or owners.

The firm separation between a news outlet’s editorial  and business functions is critical in maintaining the independence of journalists. A free press that is trusted and respected by citizens as fair-minded and untainted by the personal whims of owners or the corporate interests of advertisers is paramount in a democracy. It’s also critical to the long-term financial viability of a newspaper or broadcast outlet. If readers and viewers lose faith in a news outlet’s autonomy, they will abandon it.

1. General Guidelines

1a — The personal or political views of the owner or publisher should not interfere with day-to-day news content or the individual opinions of columnists. That includes decisions about what to cover, how to cover it and where to place the story in a newspaper, magazine or broadcast news program. Only reporters and editors should make those decisions. It’s understood that the owner or publisher is responsible for the overall content and that they can suggest story ideas or pass on views, but they should not assign or determine the content or tone of a story. At all times, the owner or publisher should have an arms-length relationship to the editorial function.

1b — To further define editorial responsibility, it is useful to provide clarity around the function of the publication or broadcast news program through a succinct mission statement that accurately describes the aims, values and overall plans of the publication or program.

1c — In the event of a conflict between the editorial and business functions, it is necessary to have an oversight mechanism. This could take the form of a memorandum of understanding that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of each group, an ombudsman such as those found at the CBC or The Toronto Star or an editorial board or oversight committee such as the one at the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  It could also include an advocacy committee made up of readers or members of the public.

1d — The CAJ’s Statement of Principles and Ethics has guided this policy paper. Special mind should be paid to the responsibility of a reporter to avoid giving favoured treatment to advertisers and to disclose any conflicts of interest, such as free travel junkets.

1e — Similarly, journalists and editors should avoid personal relationships and political or community affiliations that could compromise the independence of their news coverage.

1f — Any relationships or affiliation that could be perceived as a conflict of interest should be disclosed to the reader or viewer to ensure transparency.

2. Advertisements

2a — Journalists should avoid being spokespeople for products or companies and should disclose any conflicts of interest prominently so viewers, readers or online readers are aware.

2b — Complete operational separation should be maintained between editorial staff and advertising staff. Advertising staff should never attempt to influence new coverage in any way, whether it relates to a current client or not.

2c — No editorial content should be published or broadcast in an attempt to sell an advertisement to a specific client or with the specific intent to earn advertising revenue. Conversely, no media outlet should offer to publish or broadcast a story about an advertiser as an incentive to sell an ad.

2d — Advertisers should not be allowed to stipulate the placement of their ads in close proximity to a specific story about them. Similarly, the juxtaposition of editorial material and advertising on the same products should be avoided in order to prevent readers from questioning the objectivity of the editorial content.

2e — Editorial staff should not be instructed or encouraged to change or withhold editorial content in an attempt to curry favour with or avoid angering an advertiser or potential advertising client. It must be acknowledged that, besides pulling their bylines or refusing to voice a story, reporters have little recourse when this occurs, short of resigning. They look to editors to stand firm in the face of pressure from advertisers. That speaks to the need for an oversight body or ombudsman.

2f  — Editorial content should not be shown to any advertising sales representatives or client prior to publication or broadcast.

2g – Online content should clearly distinguish advertisers’ links and ads from editorial copy and links. Advertisers’ links outside the body of a story should be clearly labeled as such. And, advertisers should not be permitted to pay for links embedded in news stories.

2h — News outlets should disclose the source of photos and video footage not produced by journalists, such as promotional material from a company or materials provided by authorities.

2i — Editorial staff should not be required to prepare special advertising sections for their own publications, or for other publications in their company. In the same vein, the names of editors from the editorial section should not appear on special advertising sections.

2j — Radio and television reporters should not lend their voices to commercials, nor should they be used in product placement segments. Advertising involving journalists and public affairs broadcasters should not be disguised as news and information programming. If a radio segment is paid for by an advertiser, that should be disclosed frequently throughout the segment, not only at the end.

2k – All news outlets should create internally a list of guidelines for editors and advertising sales reps that clarify the segregation of editorial and ad functions and stipulates that an advertiser won’t be guaranteed positive editorial coverage if an ad is purchased.

3. Print Advertorials

Advertorials are advertisements with a story or large textual component meant to mimic genuine news content. Their existence speaks to the persuasive power of news stories produced by independent reporters to inform, educate and influence public opinion. That role should not be abused or undermined by disguising advertising as news.

3a – All readers should be able to readily distinguish between advertising and editorial material. Print advertorials should be clearly labeled as advertising copy, horizontally, at the top of the page, in a point size that’s significantly larger than the body of the text, in a colour that contrasts with the background colour of the page. Similarly, the design and typeface of the advertorial should be markedly different from editorial content. The advertorial typeface and design should not deliberately mimic that of editorial copy.

3b — Advertorials should only be produced by advertising staff or agents, rather than editorial writers or editors. Journalists shouldn’t be pressured to produce advertorials. Similarly, advertorials should not be written by freelancers who normally cover the ad client, the client’s products or the industry.

3c – Advertorials should not be promoted on either the cover or in the newspaper or magazine’s table of contents.

4. Advertiser-sponsored special sections or broadcast segments

These are special newspaper sections, editions of a magazine or broadcast sponsored and conceived of by an advertiser and focused around a specific theme but that allow editorial staff full control over content.

4a — Special ad sections should be clearly marked as different from special investigative or feature reports produced by reporters.

4b — Special editorial sections produced by journalists on a particular topic, sponsored by advertising clients, do not necessarily violate CAJ principles of editorial independence, provided:

i. Neither the client nor the advertising sales staff has any input into the content.

ii. The story ideas were generated by editorial staff, not by advertising sales staff or clients.

iii. Neither the clients, nor the sales representatives, are given the opportunity to review editorial copy prior to publication.

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