An Introduction to Confidential Sources in Journalism



Building strong community relationships has been the cornerstone of Greg Gullberg’s journalism career. Gullberg has been able to break many big stories through trusted sources. Those relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. Greg Gullberg believes that it is always best to get information on-record, but there are times when a source must be kept confidential.

Protection of anonymous sources in the field of journalism can be a complex topic. On one hand, it is vitally important not only to the field of journalism, but to the integrity of the nation’s news and justice systems, that citizens feel journalists can provide important, accurate information to news outlets without fear of professional or personal backlash. However, law enforcement officials may find themselves in desperate need of contacting a journalist’s confidential source in order to solve or further the investigation a case, leaving the journalist in a difficult position.

Various states have passed legislation in this area, such as the Colorado Press Shield Law, which prevents journalists from being subpoenaed and forced to reveal anonymous sources. The law was at the center of the James E. Holmes case in 2013. Holmes had been charged as the man responsible for the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. During the investigation, New York reporter Jana Winter cited two anonymous police officers as describing one of the suspect’s journals as full of plans for a mass shooting. The journal had allegedly been mailed by Holmes to a psychiatrist prior to the shooting.

As the case moved to trial, Judge Carlos Samour, Jr., stated that if Winter was called to trial and did not reveal the names of her sources, she could face up to six months in prison. The announcement sent shock waves throughout the field. Ultimately New York courts, with some of the nation’s most protective shield laws, prevented Winter from taking the stand. Holmes, meanwhile, was sentenced to life in prison, with an additional sentence of 3,318 years.