Approved at 2004 annual General Meeting of the Association
Our privilege and duty as investigative journalists is to defend free speech, inform self-governing citizens, encourage deliberation on public policy and serve the public interest.
These duties sometimes require that journalists reveal criminal activity, investigate abuses of power, expose wrong-doing, protecting the public’s health and safety and support the open administration of justice and government.
Investigative journalism employs special methods that raise ethical and legal issues. The stories of investigative journalism have serious consequences for individuals, organizations and society. Investigative journalism, therefore, has distinct responsibilities.
Our primary duty is to seek and report the truth as completely and independently as possible. We will make every effort to ensure the accuracy of our reports.
We will act as an independent voice for the public at large. We will not be intimidated by power or influenced by special interests, advertisers or news sources. We will not allow the independence of our journalism to be compromised by conflicts of interest.
We will use confidential sources who are in a position to know and whose evidence is verified by other independent sources. We will be wary of sources who may be motivated by malice or bias.
We will be transparent in our actions, especially where our stories are controversial, have far-reaching impact, or require special techniques.
Special investigative methods will be used only if:
The information is important for the public
There is no other way to obtain the information
Any harm to individuals or organizations is out-weighed by the benefits of making the information public
We are able to plan the investigation carefully
We will be accountable for our actions.
We will explain to the public the nature and reasons for our investigations. We will explain why we used confidential sources, or hidden recording devices, or why we misrepresented ourselves.
We will respond promptly and openly to complaints from the public. We will be ready to explain how a story was investigated and what editorial standards were used. We will correct quickly any errors in our stories.
We will give individuals or organizations that are publicly criticized an opportunity to respond. We will make a genuine and exhaustive effort to contact them. Where possible, we will give them an opportunity to respond before the story is published or broadcast.
Canadians have a right to privacy, yet they also have a right to know about their public institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests. They have a right to know the social impact of private organizations and corporations. We will not infringe upon someone’s privacy unless it is in the public interest. Where privacy is infringed, we will seek to minimize any harm done to people, especially the vulnerable, the traumatized and the young. Each situation should be judged in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s right to know.
Canadian Association of Journalists Guidelines for Investigative Journalism
Editorial Control and Approval
Wide consultation is strongly recommended when undertaking unusual or controversial newsgathering activities. Consultation with legal counsel and prior authorization of a senior editor or manager is required when using surreptitious methods of gathering information.
Policies on editing and the rights of program participants may require senior editorial approval in order that journalists can hold themselves to the highest standards of professional performance.
In some cases, a final review and approval of the investigative issues within the report may be required prior to publication or broadcast.
Investigative reporters who uncover sensitive information can attract the interest of police, the justice system, government officials, organizations and institutions who wish to obtain the material for their own use.
We must always protest attempts by police and other members of the justice system to involve us in their investigations. Our first responsibility is to the public. The public should not perceive journalists to be agents of the police. When that happens we undermine our credibility and stifle the flow of future information from sensitive sources. The appearance of being affiliated with the police could threaten our safety.
Where journalists become aware of impending public risk, we are beholden as citizens to warn authorities of what we have uncovered. But in the vast majority of circumstances, we serve the public interest by maintaining strict independence from police, the justice system and government institutions.
Accuracy and Verification
Inaccuracies or missing information in stories undermines journalistic credibility. It raises questions about the overall truth and fairness of the information, and our stories.
The basic facts of a story can be verified often through sources, officials and documents. We should make every effort to pursue all of these avenues.
We will remain vigilant or disciplined when using information from the web and e-mail. E-mail and other web postings pose particular problems for journalists because they frequently allow sources to remain anonymous or to assume a false identity. It is easy to manufacture an e-mail address from a government department or corporate headquarters.
Conducting interviews by e-mail is acceptable if you have independently verified the interviewee’s identity. Quotes from an e-mail interview should be identified as such. We will not promise confidentiality to a source via e-mail unless we have verified their identity.
Extreme caution should be used in using alleged facts or quotes from anyone participating in e-mail mailing lists, chat rooms and discussion groups. We will always try to contact the participant directly.
We should verify any information, facts or documents posted on the web or internet -- preferably with a phone call to the source. Even information from a reliable site -- such as a reputable news organization or government ministry -- should be checked. Extreme caution should be used when using information from lesser known or new web sites.
There may be cases where it is deemed necessary to use web information that we cannot verify independently. In such cases, we will inform our readers or audiences about the nature and reliability of the news source.
The general watchword for journalistic work on the web is: “Don't believe and don't deceive.”
Misrepresentation by a journalist is justified only in cases where illegal or fraudulent activity is strongly suspected to have taken place, the public trust is abused or public safety is at risk. Documentary evidence of problems may not exist and officials may fail to respond to inquiries. Sources may not exist, or refuse to speak for fear of retribution. For example, when investigating controversial activities (i.e., illegal purchases over the web, or the dissemination of hate speech), we may find it necessary to cloak our identity.
Undercover research should be conducted with a strong moral compass, with sensitivity to those being investigated and with openness to readers and audiences.
We should avoid duplicity or misrepresentation when conducting web-based research. For example, there should be no excuse to join a breast cancer discussion group or an AIDS mailing list and pretend you are anything but what you are: an inquiring journalist.
Technology and Techniques
We will employ clandestine recording methods, such as the use of hidden cameras or microphones, only after due consideration is given to issues of legality, fairness and invasion of privacy.
Careful consideration will be given to employing individuals other than journalists in recording material clandestinely. The authenticity of recordings from non-journalistic sources should be verified and clearly identified.
Re-enactments, Reconstructions and Dramatizations
Re-enactments, reconstructions and dramatizations can be used as effective tools in the full and accurate reporting of a significant story, but they should reflect the event they portray as closely as possible.
Broadcast journalists should avoid manipulating sounds or images in any way that misleads or distorts reality or has the effect of producing editorial comment.
Rigorous judgement should be employed when considering the use of special effects; which may include the use of sound and music, graphics, camera angles, lighting, fast- and slow-motion, and any other editing techniques.
As a general rule, dramatizations and actuality should not be mixed because the audience must have the ability to judge the nature of the information.
We will identify clearly the judicious use of simulations to the audience in both script and on-air.
Use of confidential and anonymous sources
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.
How 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.
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.
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.