What journalists can learn from the Brian Ross suspension

This weekend, ABC News suspended one of broadcast journalism's most honored reporters, Brian Ross. The network suspended Ross without pay for his reporting on Friday that said during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump had asked retired general Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials.  ABC explained the error this way:

During a live Special Report, ABC News reported that a confidant of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said Flynn was prepared to testify that then-candidate Donald Trump instructed him to contact Russian officials during the campaign. That source later clarified that during the campaign, Trump assigned Flynn and a small circle of other senior advisers to find ways to repair relations with Russia and other hot spots. It was shortly after the election, that President-elect Trump directed Flynn to contact Russian officials on topics that included working jointly against ISIS.

By Saturday, after President Trump blamed a more than 300-point stock market nosedive on the flawed report,  ABC announced Ross would be off the job without pay.

On his Twitter page, Ross said it is right to hold him accountable.

Ross’ story is based on information from a single unnamed source. But this case is a reminder that even when you are one of the country’s most honored reporters, the reporting must undergo a rigorous editorial review.

My former Poynter colleague Bob Steele and I developed a checklist of questions that newsrooms should consider before using confidential sources. We realize that some sources cannot be named, for legitimate reasons, but you should be able to fulfill all of these requirements before you grant confidentiality to a source:

  • A story that uses confidential sources should be of overwhelming public concern.
  • Before using an unnamed source, you must be convinced there is no other way to get the essential information on the record.
  • The unnamed source must have verifiable and first-hand knowledge of the story.
  • Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true.
  • If you are unsure the information is true, admit it to the public.
  • You should be willing to reveal to the public why the source cannot be named and what, if any, promises the news organization made in order to get the information.

Editors have an obligation to ask a series of questions about what the source knows, how the source knows what he/she claims and exactly what the reporter promised to the source. In addition, I would suggest the editor ask:

  • Why is the source telling us this information?
  • What do they have to gain or lose from this?
  • What is this source’s track record?
  • Have other tips from this source panned out?
  • Has any of this source’s information failed the fact-checking test?
  • What legal obligations will we incur by promising not to reveal this source's name? If you are sued, are you willing to go to jail to protect this source?
  • If you are sued, will the source come forward and be named? Is the reluctance justifiable?
  • Does this source understand that if we discover the source has lied to us that we may identify them as The Washington Post did recently when a woman claiming to have damaging information about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore turned out to be a fraud who was attempting to lure reporters into a sting that would make the journalists look bad?
  • How clearly does this source understand the short-term and long-term risks they are taking that could cost them their job or compromise their safety?
  • Does the source understand the news organization won’t be able to prevent that harm if somebody discovers who they are?
  • How would readers/viewers/listeners evaluate the same information if they knew the source's name and motivations?
  • How easy will it be to contact this source later if we have questions?
  • If you promised to protect a source's identity, are you using production techniques that will ensure the protection you promised? What if a lawyer subpoenas the raw tapes? Would the person be identifiable in the tape outtakes?
  • Does the source understand that we will not pay money or favoritism in exchange for this information?

I am particularly uncomfortable allowing a person to attack another person by name and remain anonymous. We have seen these kinds of cases play out in recent weeks involving claims of sexual harassment. I would need multiple sources confirming the information to be true before I allowed such an unnamed attack.

Ross has been honored for exposing mob bosses and dirty politicians, international smugglers and sex abusers, dirty politicians and cheating charities. If he can make a mistake serious enough to be suspended for a month, it is a sobering reminder that we all are under a justifiable microscope.  Every time we give fuel to media critics who can call our work “fake news” we all suffer some.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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