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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.

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