Ethical Journalism, and Protecting Sources

January 19, 2012

Parliament from the air: July 16, 2008

I recently attended a fascinating lecture on a topic I have been writing about occasionally and would like to cover in more detail. But the lecture was given under the Chatham House Rule, and as someone who strives to respect sources and whose continued access to information depends to a considerable extent on earning and maintaining trust, I'm in a real bind here.

The purpose of the Chatham House Rule is to encourage openness, leading to more useful exchanges of views and information. It is intended to facilitate dialogue and discussion, not stifle it. But the terms of the Rule give an apparently equal priority to privacy and anonymity: it is written from the philosophical position that freedom from the possible negative consequences of personal identification will enable speakers to be more open, and discussion to be more productive. 

But the lecture I attended involved only one speaker, and notice of it taking place was published in advance online. There is no way I can publish details of when or where the lecture took place without identifying the person who gave it. The subject matter, and the level of expertise of the speaker, also mean that it is close to impossible for me to write about the topic and include any of the information they discussed without risking identifying them as its source: an averagely curious reader would probably be able to identify the event, and thus the speaker, by comparing whatever I published with material already in the public domain.

I'm in a similar knot over my ongoing research into the Stratfor hack (see previous pieces here, here and here). There are people whose personal data were published following the hack, whose identities are in themselves newsworthy - but I do not feel I have the right, ethically and possibly legally, to publish their names or to publish the fact that their data have been compromised without their permission. In essence, I would be drawing attention to information that, while technically in the public domain, has so far gone unnoticed, and which was only put into the public domain as a result of what Stratfor consider to be, and what the FBI are investigating as, a crime. I have approached a number of these people, either directly or through their appropriate media representatives, but as yet have received responses from very few.

I'd be interested to hear from other journalists who have wrestled with similar conundrums (conundra?), or anyone who has been on the other side of these questions. Please feel free to leave a comment below, as I'm sure the discussion would be of interest to other journalists; but I would be equally as keen to hear from you by email if you'd prefer a less public channel. It should go without saying that I will, of course, respect any confidences requested or required.


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