The Sunday Times and the Snowdon leaks: reporting others' journalism

The complainant, Scott Sorli, accused CBC News of “stenography journalism” and repeating unsubstantiated facts when it reported on a Sunday Times (of London) story. The story had only anonymous sources in Downing Street and the Foreign Office who claimed that Russia and China had cracked the code of some documents leaked by Edward Snowden and, as a result, British officials had to pull some spies. There is no policy prohibition on reporting other people’s work, but it isn’t the best journalism.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to complain about the lead story on the 7:00 a.m. (EDT) edition of World Report, broadcast on June 14, 2015. The item was a reiteration of a story published that day in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times of London. The Times piece reported that British spies had been compromised and removed from China and Russia because those two governments had accessed documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The Times story was based on anonymous sources. It was later refuted by Glenn Greenwald, who was one of the recipients of Edward Snowden’s leaks.

You were concerned that CBC repeated as true and accurate a story based entirely on anonymous sources, and on the work of another media organization’s work. You added:

The item also stated that it was not known if snowden supplied that information to the russians, and noted that he lives in moscow. there are lots of things that are not known, but it is interesting that the journalist accepts his unsubstantiated anonymous source's information as known while taking the on-the-record statement by snowden that he has NOT done this as unknown. [sic]

You pointed out that in your view, there were far too many “unknowns” in this story.

You also said that all of the Snowden documents released through journalists are available online, and you wanted to know “which item was the source of this release?”

You rejected the explanation provided by CBC news management. You pointed out that Glenn Greenwald had debunked many of the assertions later that day, and you did not think it sufficient that later CBC reporting carried a comment from Mr. Greenwald. You thought CBC should have done much more than that.

You wondered about CBC News policy on anonymous sources, and if a source had lied, would the source no longer be granted anonymity.

You said you were “embarrassed by this false journalism” and expected an apology and a retraction.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of CBC Television and Radio News, Paul Hambleton, responded to your complaint. He explained that the decision was made to “tell listeners about this intriguing story” because it was generating a lot of reaction and, in effect, making news. He acknowledged that there is a high degree of responsibility to reporting from anonymous sources and pointed out there was another issue as well:

In this instance, the dilemma is not simply about anonymous sources, but also about how to report on what another news organization is saying when we can’t corroborate it ourselves. I reviewed the reporting we did in this instance, and I’m comfortable with how the information was used.

He explained that the producers of the newscast weighed the newsworthiness of the story against the issues surrounding it, and came to the conclusion that it was important to let Canadians know about it:

As the Times story was being discussed around the world, our producers felt – correctly, in my view – that to ignore it would be unfair to our audience. So our reporter told the story with clear attribution to the Sunday Times, and Mr. Valitis also reported that the paper did not say exactly how the alleged information from Snowden was obtained. He also included comment from one of the journalists involved in the Times piece.

He told you that while it is not common, news organizations will report stories based on the work of a credible organization, being careful to make it clear CBC News has not been able to verify the material. In this case he pointed out that one of the authors of the Times piece was included in the coverage. He added as criticism of the story emerged over the course of the day, comments from Glenn Greenwald “the journalist most closely tied to Snowden,” was included in the World Report story.

REVIEW

Your inquiry and the issues you raise, like many questions around good journalism, have complex answers. The specific question you asked was whether the broadcast of this piece violated CBC policy on the use of anonymous sources. The broader question is, not being able to verify it in substance, should CBC have written or broadcast it at all.

The choice to broadcast what another news organization is saying without validating it is not prohibited. It is not unprecedented. In the early days of reporting on the infamous Toronto mayor Rob Ford video, CBC News relied on other news organizations, while working to confirm and expand the story.

The decision to publish any story is multi-layered. In this case, it certainly fit the definition of news. It had caused quite a stir in the United Kingdom, and there is ongoing interest in Edward Snowden and the documents he leaked. In order to fulfill CBC News requirements of integrity, it is important that the story is clearly attributed, and it is made clear CBC has no way of validating the facts being reported. The reasoning is that it is useful for people to know that this is in the public discourse. The danger, of course, is by publishing at all, it gives it a kind of validation it may not deserve. No matter how much you hedge it, it is still part of a newscast. In this case, it led the World Report edition you heard at 7:00 a.m. The introduction of the story reports as fact that the spies have been uncovered:

The British government says some of its spies have been uncovered. And as a result the undercover agents have been pulled out of the countries they were working in. The breach apparently happened because Russia and China cracked the encryption codes used to communicate with them. As Dominic Valitis reports, this all started with the documents first leaked by Edward Snowden.

The reporter is a little clearer, using language like the “Sunday Times claims” and the fact that the story is based on anonymous sources.

The story was written from the Times story, of course, and even the short clip of one of the Times reporters was taken from another source, and not obtained through an interview by Mr. Valitis. This cobbling together of a story, especially before there is a chance to do any research, is not a violation of policy. It is also not an example of great journalism. And the introduction might have stated the fact that these claims were made by the Times. It also might have provided people with detail to make up their own minds about the quality of the source if the reporter had mentioned the sources were from the British foreign office, Downing Street and the intelligence community.

You might think it counter-intuitive to report something that may or may not be true. And I agree with you that the danger of rushing to publish to be part of the story undermines the need for validation. Context is what matters, and also an understanding of the nature of what news is. In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel write that accuracy matters but there is another consideration:

It is more helpful and more realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process – or as a continuing journey toward understanding – that begins with the first story and builds over time…Context is added in each successive layer. In more important and complex stories, there are subsequent contributions on the editorial pages, discussions on talk shows...viewpoints expressed on blogs and other internet venues...the full range of public and private conversation.

And that is precisely what happened here. By the next newscast, at 8:00 a.m., there was an addendum to the story quoting Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who worked closely with Snowden and a recipient of the leaked documents. He rebutted the story, initially in a tweet and subsequently in a much longer article. In the next edition of World Report, listeners heard the news reader say:

One of the journalists who helped Edward Snowden leak the documents is Glenn Greenwald. On Twitter, he has responded to the Sunday Times story, saying it has many factual errors and that the anonymous sources are more interested in serving the government than telling the truth.

Later that morning CBC News online published a longer story, entitled “Journalists slam article claiming Russia, China cracked Edward Snowden files,” which carried responses from both Greenwald and Snowden. By continuing to add other perspectives to the story, CBC News fulfilled the policy obligation to provide a range of views over a reasonable period of time.

I am aware that later that Sunday one of the Times reporters was interviewed on the U.S. news channel CNN, and stated that the story relied on anonymous sources, and the Times had no actual concrete proof that what their sources were telling them was true. The responses to questions like how the Snowden files were supposedly decrypted by the Russian and Chinese officials, and what kinds of files were compromised, he answered “I don’t know the answer to that.”

Many critics have questioned the reliability of the story, but the Times, although forced to correct some details, stands by what their sources told them, and their decision to publish. As doubt and rebuttal grew, CBC News did reflect that in its coverage. And while they obviously couldn’t replicate months of work, they might want to consider doing some kind of original work in a story like this – for example, actually talking to or interviewing someone from the Times.

You asked which document in the online Snowden file would provide proof for these allegations. The question is not relevant. As you pointed out, only a fraction of the documents are posted so far – those that have been made public.

You also asked about CBC News policy on confidential sources. There is nothing in the policy that specifically references reporting based on another news organization’s confidential sources. While no original work was done on this story, further developments in the story were covered. But you underscore the extreme importance of sourcing to support credible journalism. It is spelled out pretty clearly in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices:

Newsgathering, whether investigative or routine, lives and dies based on the quality of its sources of information. The more controversial the story, the more critical the credibility of sources becomes.

Our standards apply to all types of sources, including those coming via social media, when they are used for news gathering purposes.

There are two relationships at stake here – our relationship with the audience, and our relationship with the source.

Sources may be risking a great deal by sharing information. It is important that we are clear and explicit from the outset as to the degree of protection we are prepared to offer and how the information will be used (e.g. “on” or “off the record”).

This same clarity is necessary in our relationship with our audiences. We are clear about the relationship with the source. We let people know as precisely as possible where and from whom the information comes. This helps them evaluate that information and to put facts into context.

The values of accuracy, fairness and integrity guide our handling of sources and the information they bring.

Using anonymous sources does not necessarily undermine the credibility of a story, but it creates a high bar to provide the evidence behind the source’s information. The reality is daily journalism doesn’t always live up to the high principle, but the overuse of anonymous sources is beyond the scope of this review. Some matters in the public interest can only be told in this way – people’s personal safety and livelihood might otherwise be put in jeopardy. CBC policy takes this relationship and the granting of anonymity very seriously. It is hard to generalize, and each case is judged on its merits. That would also apply if a source had not told the truth. The decision to reveal the person would be made on a case-by-case basis. In such a situation, it would certainly be critical to acknowledge the information was incorrect and diligently report what happened and why.

The reporting based on the Sunday Times work is an important reminder that once CBC News passes on the information, there is a responsibility to ensure that it fully conforms to CBC standards. Hindsight might have led to a different handling of the story, but there was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman