Can you keep a secret?

Reporting on the backstory of a campaign can be interesting for readers, but, as Joe has said below, it becomes troublesome when the periphery of a campaign takes over from the issues. Fundamentally, it is the job of the press to perform a public service. In the case of election coverage, it is up to journalists to provide the public with the information they need to make an informed decision on January 23. Hence the problem with covering the campaign as opposed to covering the issues.

Despite CBC offering mostly exceptional coverage of policy issues during this election campaign, the national broadcaster falls alarmingly short in one important aspect. It’s called Campaign Confidential and it’s totally against professional standards of journalism.

Here is how the CBC describes Campaign Confidential:

Campaign Confidential is a diary, really, by a writer who is no stranger to political campaigns in this country. For now, the author will remain anonymous, but rest assured she or he is a political pro, a veteran of more than a quarter-century of elections, leadership races and conventions. We’ve asked for a brief twice-weekly note of insider perspective.

After you’ve seen a few editions of Campaign Confidential, you may want to take a guess at who our diarist is. Be patient; there’s a long way to go before election night, when you’ll find out for sure who it is.

If you haven’t heard of Campaign Confidential, here’s how it works. Twice weekly, the anonymous writer posts to this site. On The National, the CBC’s nightly newscast, a reporter reads the email to the viewing audience, protecting the anonymity of the source.

Reporters should rarely use anonymous sources. They allow individuals to speak on an issue without being held accountable to their actions. If a source asks a reporter to be anonymous, the reporter should be certain that the request for anonymity is valid. For example, a source should be granted anonymity if they are providing facts in the public interest and disclosure of the source of those facts could be of great personal detriment to the source. If a source knows that a politician has ties to organized crime, and reveals this information, the criminal organization could seek retribution by causing bodily harm to the source. The source should remain anonymous.

But allowing sources to speak opinion of any kind behind the curtain of anonymity does not serve the public. CBC is allowing an anonymous source to comment on the election and, perhaps, influence voters without revealing their identity. The source could be Scott Reid, a senior political advisor to Paul Martin. It could be Warren Kinsella, a writer, political pundit and former aide to Jean Chretien. Or, it could just be a CBC reporter going undercover.

Regardless, the CBC is allowing a political insider to opine on the election without revealing any potential bias. Of course, the CBC says they will reveal the source on election night, but by then the damage could have already been done.

More on CBC’s Campaign Confidential

Carleton University journalism professor Chris Waddell (and a good friend of mine), wrote about the Campaign Confidential in a Globe and Mail Media Watch column a few weeks ago, but sadly, it’s not available online any more. If anyone can find a PDF of that Globe article, please email me.


Chris Dornan actually wrote the Media Watch piece on CBC’s Campaign Confidential. King of Bastards has posted it above.

More sources on this can be found at Antonia Zerbisias’ TorStar blog, or on Fine Young Journalist.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for blogging about this topic so close to my heart. The willingness of journalists (especially young ones) to go off the record in order to get a big story is disturbing. I was trained that you never agree to go off the record unless you can get the information confirmed by another source who will go on the record.

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