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What do you do when you find a black mark in your source’s past?

What do you do when you find a black mark in your source’s past?

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Human beings are complicated, and we cannot possibly write about every aspect of a person's life in a single story. 

Even a book-length biography of a person has to leave things out. It’s why some of our most famous public figures have multiple biographies covering multiple aspects of their lives. (I found 16 different biographies about Bob Marley recently on Amazon.)

Your job when using someone as a source is to make sure that you are letting your audience know everything about that source that is relevant for that particular story. That means when you find out something that is potentially damaging to a source's reputation in their community, you need to decide whether that has any bearing on their credibility as a source. If it does, you need to fully report it. Then you need to decide how to fit it into the context of your story or whether it’s better left in your notebook. 

Here are three things to consider:

  1. How significant is the black mark in the source’s personal history? It would be nice if we could put a strictly legal fence around this. If it’s a felony crime, you have to report it. Misdemeanors need to be assessed on a case by case basis. There are some good precedents inside legal case histories for the kinds of things that ultimately matter when it comes to a person’s credibility. In the 2017 case of Jerry Gater, a federal inmate in prison on drug charges, a judge ruled that even though one of the sources used by police as an informant against Gater was an illegal drug user, her information was still valid. “Disclosing explicitly that the source had a history of drug use and that police paid the source for information would not have prevented the issuing judge from finding probable cause to search Gater’s house,” the judge wrote

But not all black marks are legal matters. What if a source had written inflammatory things in their college newspaper? What if they have adult kids who refuse to talk to them, indicating some dark cloud in their past? One way to get a sense of whether that dark cloud is worth reporting is by simply asking the source about it. How do they react? Are they defensive? Do they have a good explanation for what happened and why? Then talk with others – including your editors and peers – about the information.

  1. Does the trouble in the source’s past have anything to do with why they are providing you information now? If a source provided you access to records that you otherwise would not have seen, you are leaning heavily on that source. You need to verify those records, of course, but the motivations of the source in providing you those records can be called into question – legitimately or not – and become a distraction. 

Think carefully about what is behind the source’s willingness to help you report your story. Were they fired from their job? Are they in financial trouble? Are they in the midst of a family crisis? Do they have some personal animus toward the organization or the person who is the subject of your investigation? If it turns out the source had been fired from their job after being accused of stealing from their employer, you need to report that out. 

It could turn out that the trouble in their past is a big part of the story. Look no further than the case of Anne Mitchell, a nurse who was charged with a third degree felony for “misusing official information” after she reported a doctor to the Texas medical board. Mitchell was ultimately acquitted, but her story shows us that sometimes what has happened to a source because of their cooperation with journalists or investigators is just as interesting as the information they are providing. 

  1. Does the potentially damaging information have any bearing on the information you are using for you story? This is the central question, but, as I explain below, not the final consideration. You have to ask whether the DUI, or the firing, or the drug use, or anything else has any relationship at all to the information you are receiving and reporting. You may have a source who is a convicted criminal. Is the information you have gathered from that source independently verifiable? If it is, and you work to button down your story, you can consider that source a tipster. They turned you on to the story, but you did the necessary reporting to make your story unassailable. 

  2. Would the revelation of this information by a critic of your story undermine your story in any way? This is perhaps the most important consideration. Even if you think that DUI doesn’t matter, even if your editor thinks that DUI doesn’t matter, if your story is going after a person or an organization that will turn around and attack you, you don’t want to give them any ammunition for their attack. So, in the end, it may make more sense for you to reveal everything you know about a source just for the purpose of inoculating yourself against critics. You’ll want to do it as tactfully and respectfully as possible, and even then, your source is likely to be very unhappy with you. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether the story is worth the turmoil and pain those kinds of disclosures can create.


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