CNN Source Agreement Odd, Not Blackmail

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

Post updated Monday July 5 to include CNN’s statement.


CNN announced an unusual anonymity agreement with a source Sunday.


After tracking down the source of a video posted on Twitter by President Donald Trump, CNN said it agreed to keep the person’s identity a secret since he is a private citizen, showed remorse for his online activities, removed his online posts and promised not to repeat his past behavior.

“CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” according to the story reported by Andrew Kaczynski.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy posted a statement from the news organization Monday on his Twitter account about the matter.

Journalists and news organizations offer sources anonymity for various reasons, but the specifics of CNN’s agreements with its source makes it unusual.

Specifically, what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully? Would CNN specifically write a story about the person breaking the agreement? Would it retroactively add his name to Sunday’s story?

Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms.

Additionally, where would these types of agreements with sources end? Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?

In general, concealing the identity of this specific source would not go against the spirit of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The Code says journalists should consider a “sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

Additionally, it says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

In the case of CNN’s source, he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online that somehow made their way to the Presidents of the United States. He’s apparently sorry for his actions. Little is gained by identifying the person. The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.

All of those goals can be accomplished without CNN turning into an online version of Emily Post.

CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail, however. Anonymity agreements between journalists and sources should be detailed and often include qualifying statements. The specific qualifying statement in this agreement is not something that should be common practice, though.

Of course, CNN needs to keep its promise now that it’s agreed upon by both parties.

Journalists should “be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make,” according to the Society’s Code.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee chairperson.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


  • Shaun Joy

    I do have to pose a question however on this: does the context of the anonymity matter? I would think it would, and that’s where my concern into this case comes into play. I believe you indicate that with the “common practice” line, but I think that maybe that should be dug into a little bit more on exactly WHY that could be a problem.

    The issue I have is that the granted anonymity is required on something that’s necessary for journalism to do its job: freedom of speech/press. I’ve seen cases where jobs would have been lost if a source was directly named, or undeserved pressure would have been put on the person in question as a bystander. Ok fine, but this situation, this feels a bit different.

    The gif in question could easily be taken as satire on the situation with CNN/Trump, and while some took it as a call against violence against the press, again that comes down to interpretation. Just like the Caesar/Trump plays in New York: at what point is it reasonable to hold the initial creator for a message that may have been misinterpreted/taken in a different direction? Again, similar to the Pepe the frog situation: it by no means started as a symbol for “hate speech” as claimed by articles later on. Is it on the creator that his drawing turned into something completely different, and be pressured into renouncing those who turned into something else? I know that person did: but is it something that should be forced?

    When you promise anonymity in situations where the person could be fired from a job for example, I can understand that, and the two elements of reporting an issue with a company and the job can still co exist. If he had posted out in words that he wanted Trump to attack the press physically, I could understand that, as a direct call to violence would be something that you’d want to under play. But here, it does feel like the pressure is less about the actual post that was initially made: and more about the public’s reaction to that piece. To put that on the initial creator as a pressure for keeping his post anoyomous….I don’t know, I think that crosses a line. I feel like any agreement that a journalist makes there has to avoid situations like that at all cost: because again, you may be punishing the speech that you attempt to defend.

    In addition, I get that by SPJ guidelines that you want to be clear and concise with the audience regarding your information finding process….but isn’t indicate the method of finding out the information (a cross reference with reddit/facebook) with archives services still active and holding the information go against the rules of anonymity here? Aren’t you basically publishing a blueprint of how to find this information if you really want to? I think that’s where another concern of mine is: was that necessary for the piece to be detailed about how you found the information.

    My two cents.

  • Noreen Merrick

    “unusual anonymity agreement”

    An “agreement” with a gun pointed at your head is not an agreement.

    WTF is wrong with you guys? “We won’t reveal your identity as long as you never post mean memes about us ever again.”

    How the F is that not unethical?

  • lucben999

    what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully?

    he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online

    There is no “source” here, someone just made a joke gif and tweeted it, there was nothing abusive, offensive or “bullying” about it. CNN hunted him down and pressured him to apologize under the threat of publishing his identity. The way you’re framing this is BS.

  • William Burr

    What the hell is wrong with you people–have you misplaced your brains? You know damn well that this is a threat. CNN knows exactly what they’d be subjecting this “source” (read: some internet poster) to if they broadcast his details. And you know damn well that that’s exactly why CNN said it. This isn’t your first rodeo; you can’t be completely ignorant of the consequences of doxxing.

    It’s entirely, unambiguously clear what CNN’s message is here: We can dedicate resources into finding out who you are, and we can send the whole world to your door if you piss us off. And you know damn well that this message is for well outside one redditor who posted a silly wrestling video.

  • Migeulito

    How do we know it’s been agreed upon by both parties? All I’ve heard is CNN’s side of it. And what gives them the right to, in the very least, intimidate someone who insulted them? When did CNN become the police of the internet? What right do they have of “assuring” this guy never posts an offensive meme again? CNN is the bully here and they know it.

  • Arthur_P_Dent

    While journalists should honor commitments to protect a sources identity, it is also prudent to include a couple caveats since the organization is putting its reputation on the line. If a source provided bad information or lied about their own identity, that could be seen as grounds for voiding an agreement. That may also be the case here, that if this guy’s story is false, that could be grounds for outing him.

  • socialismstinks

    wow, isn’t this “ethics” rationalization just full of sheet or what? you guys are just awufl.

  • socialismstinks

    come on, it’s a meme……CNN made it a story.

  • socialismstinks

    ass**les in the media can’t smell their own sh*t. ridiculouis FASCISTS.

  • Andrew Orr

    The guy is not a source. He is someone who made fun of the president and CNN on the internet. CNN used it’s resources to track the guy down and threatened to destroy his life if he made fun of them again. That is evil. If CNN is not prosecuted, other large corporations will feel free to use the same tactics to silence anyone who makes fun of them on the internet.

  • Dexter Van Zile

    It’s not just “odd,” it’s coercive. Kind of pathetic that the SPJ doesn’t see this.

  • Andrew Orr

    That has nothing to do with this case. GM or Monsanto could do what CNN did. They can track anyone who made fun of them and threaten them into not doing it again. The fact that CNN happens to be a media corporation is not important.

  • NeutralObject

    Source Agreement? How on earth can a person who created an online meme be considered a “source” in a CNN story about how CNN doxxed him? The SPJ really needs to stop protecting fellow journalists, and start protecting the integrity of the journalistic process instead. Otherwise the “thin grey line” will continue to be erased, if it hasn’t already disappeared completely (which I could argue it has).

  • Andrew Orr

    This wasn’t journalism. It was a large corporation tracking down and silencing a member of the public that made fun of the battle between them and the president.

  • Meittimies

    SPJ protecting its own again, while wiping their asses with their very own Code of Ethics. This is why US ranks as low as it does in FreePress rankings. US journalism is irredeemably screwed, its not a case of an apple tree having few bad apples, the very tree is rotten to its core and only produces rotten apples with very few ripe ones in between.

  • Ryan Smith

    If a journalist tracks down somebody trying to remain anonymous and threatens to reveal them if they don’t do X, Y, Z, that person is an ‘anonymous source’ now? And telling somebody they will be exposed if they don’t do what you say is a ‘source agreement’?

  • Ryan Smith

    Well, it is though. I ultimately agree with you, but when it comes down to it, the press does have a few extra protections and considerations when it comes to speech issues. You’re right though, it would be blackmail if anybody else did it.

  • saduslover

    Some observations:
    1.) This blog just spews typical “legalistic and semantic” nonsense and gibberish..
    2.) Whatever word you attach to the CNN post, the vast majority of people see it as threatening and strong-arming.
    3.) While it may not meet Mr. Seaman’s rambling and legalistic definition of “unethical” folks using common sense and a modicum of morality would say that to reveal the meme’s author’s identity would certainly expose him to vicious verbal attacks and threats and, possibly, actual violence. And they would ask…to what end?
    4.) I doubt very much that folks viewing the subject video see it as anything but cartoonish satire. By their extreme and childish sensitivity and anger they have brought much more attention to the video. Overall, their whole reaction to Trump’s tweet speaks poorly of, not only their ethics, but their intelligence and objectivity.
    5.) If CNN’s Twitter comments claiming that the last line of their original post was only “intended … to mean we made no agreement w/the man about his identity.” is to be believed (I don’t) then it by itself is a damning testimony to their terrible journalistic “skills” in being clear and easily understood.

    Overall CNN’s response to this whole thing should embarrass them and be a valuable learning for them…but I think their hatred of Trump is so pathological that they won’t.

  • Wait wait wait. Since when did a silly meme of Trump fake clotheslining the CNN logo make this person offensive or a bully?

    How on earth did something so obviously innocuous come to be considered insidious! Because CNN said so?

  • Mr.Sixes

    Mr. Seaman, There was no agreement. they tracked him and he voluntarily chose to speak with them after they did. They already had all the information, only received confirmation that this was truly him (which according to several reports isn’t even the real/original post that Trump retweeted). the Information they gathered before and HOW they gathered it is not something they gave in their source unless that’s some how covered under source anonymity. Also you need to check how Mr. Cuomo and how he supposedly deleted a tweet threatening to release the information on the young man in question even thought the young man agreed to their terms…. Jesus man, I really hope you had more than your eyes on this before publishing it because you just single handedly killed some people’s opinion of the SPJ by defending what is beyond just a “strange agreement”.

  • Luke

    It really speaks to the culture of CNN. If they’re willing to try and police the behavior of a random citizen, it makes you wonder what they do when they have potentially damaging/embarrassing information about a politician or other public figure.

  • Ryan Smith

    How can the issue be fairly examined without even mentioning the fact that CNN is part of the story? The ‘Anonymous source’ is somebody CNN hunted down for mocking CNN, found as much incriminating dirt on them as possible, and then told them what the terms were for them not going public with their identity.

    This person is only newsworthy because CNN is mad at them.

    So I am an ‘anonymous source’ on the details of my own private life if a journalist I angered decides he wants to publish those details, and only way I can prevent him from going public is to reach an ‘anonymity agreement’ with him in which he agrees not to release incriminating information on me as long as I do what he says, and this is in no way blackmail?

    Don’t be surprised if several CNN journalists find themselves in ‘Anonymity Agreements’ with enterprising members of 4 chan in the near future.

  • Lone

    But… it wasn’t a source agreement. His identity -was- the information that was being sourced, and they contacted him _before_ he apologized. He told them he did not want his real-life identity disclosed.

    Then _they_ threatened that in the article they would do so if he ever decided to engage in -entirely legal activities- they disapproved of.

    Protip: Even your own guidelines to ethical journalism say what they did was unethical.

  • Laivasse

    You just described me. I had a loose familiarity with the concept of the SPJ as an organisation prior to reading this piece, when my opinion of them could be summed up as “a positive force for journalism, not sufficiently listened to enough”. That is all completely out the window upon reading this.

    CNN contacted an anonymous person over a disparaging humourous gif he made about them. They explicitly stated that if he does not cease all ‘ugly behaviour on social media’ they will ‘reserve the right to publish his identity’ to the world. Contained within is the implicit threat to ruin his life, because this person has dirty laundry and it has already been aired, though none of it obviously illegal.

    To characterise this as a ‘strange agreement’ regarding anonymity of a ‘source’ is just… words fail me at describing how stupid and dishonest a misrepresentation that is.

    Ryan Smith summed it up best above:
    “So I am an ‘anonymous source’ on the details of my own private life if a journalist I angered decides he wants to publish those details, and only way I can prevent him from going public is to reach an ‘anonymity agreement’ with him in which he agrees not to release incriminating information on me as long as I do what he says, and this is in no way blackmail?”

    I thought that after last year’s US election that any media-related organisation would feel compelled to examine their credibility a bit. Even if only to consider how they got their predictions so wrong, that would be something… to go as far as they really should, and examine their culpability, that would be amazing. But they are going in completely the opposite direction and tanking their credibility even further. Judging by the bizarre distortions above, the SPJ appears compelled – for reasons I can only guess at, none of them flattering – to throw their lot in with with these compromised, overly-invested actors.

  • That one guy

    dude;
    “Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?”
    are you fucking serious!? ‘Society of Professional Journalists’, and you ask that question?
    you can reveal the identity of a criminal because the crime is a matter of public record. in doing so u are not revealing someones private info without permission, you are (supposed to be) reciting what has already been made public.

    whatever the intent, that last sentence (CNN’s post) was an unambiguous threat to doxx someone. following a paragraph that did NOT say;
    ‘we have not spoken to them in regard to revealing their identity, but chose not to.’
    no it said;
    “because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again…”

    everything following ‘private citizen’ becomes a condition, ‘should any of that change’ ‘CNN reserves the RIGHT to publish his identity’ a right they do not fucking have, it should be noted. doxxing is illegal.

    Andrew Kaczynski is either so incompetent as to have genuinely not realised he had written a threat, or he intentionally wrote a threat. the end result is the same; he fucking threatened someone. on behalf of an international news network. a network who’s reputation is already trash, due to an endless stream of bullshit stories like this one, instead of covering what trump is doing AS THE FUCKING PRESIDENT OF THE GOD DAMN UNITED STATES. you know, news?

  • Tracker

    I think I found the disconnect here – “The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.”

    I can solve that mystery right now. Someone sees something funny, and they share it. No one does a deep background search before they decide retweet a silly cat video, that’s exactly how it works with both pro and anti-Trump memes as well. The story is the tweet made by the POTUS, hunting that guy down is of no public value. That’s something Gawker would do.

    There is no source here, only a target.

  • Tracker

    The argument isn’t about legalities, it’s about ethics. It’s legal to dox (almost) whoever you want, but it’s not ethical.

  • Rory Mitchell

    I would have been happy to support the SPJ’s mission before I had the misfortune of reading this poorly argued article. The awful spin and dishonesty in this piece (specifically the statement “CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail”) makes me greatly question the SPJ’s actual commitment to objectivity in dealing with such issues.

    If we trust CNN, then when this stupid troll makes a mistake again (which they likely will, considering their history), then CNN will publish the person’s identity. That will definitely cause him undue harm, which should never be condoned or accepted by a professional journalist.

    And if CNN is just doing this to intimidate and they would never actually publish his identity, then they are being dishonest in making such a statement as “we reserve the right to publish his identity”.

    So either they are immoral or they are dishonest, yet this article still seeks to defend them and their statements. Shame. You have done great injury to the once proud cause of journalism.

  • That one guy

    don’t be stupid, you can’t seriously expect a journalist to be able to use the internet.
    i mean, they don’t have time to know a damn thing about the websites they publish fucking articles on.
    yes that was a shot at andrew, there is a bloody share button on this site. gee andy, how did such a post get spread around? how does anyone find these things?
    even CNN could pull together enough competence to notice that twitter has functions for following people and retweeting posts. but you are right andy, it is a fucking mystery.
    smh

  • BezorgdeBurger

    An apologetic article on unethical journalistic behavior by CNN from the SJP Ethics Committee. That’s a shocker, nobody saw that one coming. As often is said, “1984” was a warning not a textbook on how to do it. Well done by the “respected”, “Professional Journalists”. Please don’t stop, keep digging the hole deeper, so that everyone clearly can see the ideological rot that created a duplicitous Fourth Estate.

  • videmus

    “Source agreement” and comparison to how journalists report crime? What does that have to do with anything?

    Look, just imagine a Democratic politician tweeting a pro-Palestinian picture some guy made, then Fox News digs up anti-Israel/anti-Jewish remarks this random guy once posted, in an attempt to tie Antisemitism to the politician merely through the common link of their mutual appreciation for the single pro-Palestinian picture. In Fox’s article you find a line that says “Fox is keeping this individual anonymous because he has apologized and deleted his social media accounts, but we reserve the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

    You would find NOTHING WRONG with that?

  • Jacob

    Source?!?!?!

    A journalist who cannot tell the difference between a source of information and the subject of an article is no journalist.

  • Sensei Weasel

    I’m sorry, but the entire premise of this post is predicated upon this being a miscommunication of an anonymity agreement, but in CNN’s own words from their statement on the controversy:

    “CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.”

    So if there is no anonymity agreement in place, as confirmed by CNN, then how else can the piece be taken other than as a direct threat?

  • Sensei Weasel

    From CNN’s statement on the matter: “CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.”

    So there was demonstrably no agreement. I also find it quite distasteful that this blog post tries to re-cast the subject of an exposé as a “source”. Very disappointing to see the SPJ hand-waving away what seems to be grossly unethical reporting from CNN.

  • Andrew Orr

    The media have no right to threaten people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ