Practical Tips for Protecting Your Sources and Source Material

When you gather and publish information, it may be important to you to protect the confidentiality of your sources or source material. You may not wish for your sources' identities to be revealed, and you may not want all of the information you have gathered to be public. Here are some practical tips for you to consider when seeking to protect your newsgathering information:

  • Be judicious about promising confidentiality: Promising confidentiality to your sources can provide benefits to you and your sources, but you should only offer it after you have carefully weighed the benefits and drawbacks. Review the section of this guide on Promising Confidentiality to Your Sources before making a decision. If your source demands confidentiality and your reporting requires the source, make sure you intend to maintain confidentiality if you agree. If you later decide you wish to reveal your source's identity, your source may be able to sue you if you break your promise.

  • Keep secrets secret: Once you have obtained information from a confidential source, keep the source's identity secret.  It might be tempting to talk about a juicy piece of information you have discovered with your relatives, friends, or co-workers. As a practical matter, the more people who know the information, the more likely it is to be revealed. Moreover, if you reveal some information about your source's identity, you may be precluded from protecting the information in the future.

  • Research whether you can assert a "journalistic privilege" to protect your sources and unpublished information: Many states offer protection for "journalists" who receive subpoenas requesting this information. These privileges arise from a number of different sources of law, including shield laws passed by state legislatures, the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, and the common law. Check the Legal Protections for Sources and Source Material section of this guide before revealing any information about your sources.

  • Consider where you publish your work: Where you publish your work can have an impact on your ability to protect your sources and newsgathering information. For instance, in some states you can only invoke the privilege to protect your sources if you publish in traditional print or broadcast media. In other states, you need only publish through an entity that regularly distributes news. See the Legal Protections for Sources and Source Material section of this guide for more information.



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