Confidentiality – the extent of journalist’s inquisitive behaviour, when is it too far?

Confidentiality – the extent of journalist’s inquisitive behaviour, when is it too far?

Confidentiality –
The state of keeping or being kept secret or private.


place, person, or thing from which something originates or can be obtained.

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The media plays an essential role in gathering and disseminating information in a democratic society. Confidentiality of all sources is a necessity in journalism, all journalists rely on sources for relevant information in regards to their stories. However, in gaining new information off sources, it is of utmost importance to respect and protect the source’s identity if requested. If this trust between a journalist and a source is broken, it can damage future interviews and the source’s exposure in media. ‘Journalistic Privilege’ further extends the trust of journalists to a legal level, them having the right to not reveal confidential information and sources in court, protecting the source’s rights. Journalists must ask a source whether they would like to remain anonymous before an interview and if they are able to be recorded as a means of respecting and protecting their confidentiality. The morality of breaking confidentiality can tamper with people’s emotions and mental health, adding to the cruciality of protecting the sources.

MEAA Journalist’s Code Of Ethics

Members of MEAA are encouraged to commit to fairness, honesty, independence and respect for the rights of others. The third standard quotes “Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances” highlighting the necessity to respect the source’s privacy. The Journalist’s code of ethics was formed in 1944 in Australia to encourage and maintain respectful and appropriate reporting, confidentiality being of utmost priority in association to the handling of sources whether through searching, questioning or engaging.


In many cases, eavesdropping is acceptable for journalists, whether this is overhearing a conversation or finding yourself in a situation which can be reported on without revealing the consequential sources. Yet if you intentionally view a private email that is not your own or listens on to a call, you are inevitably breaking the law and are acting ethically and morally wrong. Eavesdropping itself is being argued as wrong due to its invading privacy, despite the circumstances, even though the journalist’s eavesdropping is justified. The justification of such eavesdropping circulates around the circumstances, such as the sensitivity of the information gained and whether or not it could damage the source in any shape or form.

Uncovering the truth

Ethics in relation to uncovering truth varies depending on each circumstance in association to confidentiality. The overall consensus of uncovering the truth, also known as undercover journalism, from a beneficial aspect for the public is that it is justifiable however if it is done for personal gain it is unethical, despite whether sources are exposed or not. Undercover journalism is an active lie to get the truth, then trust can possibly be broken between reporters and the public. Columbia Journalism Review has stated “Over-Reliance on sting operations and (deceit) can weaken the public’s trust in the media and compromise journalists’ claim to be truth-tellers. Undercover reporting can be a powerful tool, but it’s one to be used cautiously: against only the most important targets, and even then only when accompanied by solid traditional reporting.” highlighting the importance of not overstepping a crucial role of such as the threat of obstructing the confidentiality of sources is possible. The sensitivity surrounding this type of journalism clashes with the need for confidentiality due to the source’s unawareness of providing information in some cases.

‘Undercover In Temp Nation’

The Star’s reporter, Sara Mojtehedzadeh went undercover for a month in 2017 at Fiera Foods, one of Toronto’s largest industrial bakeries, to expose working conditions for workers who heavily rely on agencies to give them work. Sara aimed to expose the awful conditions of the working place in hopes of improving and benefiting their employees working conditions.

However, Sara remained undercover the entire month of her placement, not alerting employees nor the agency of her true identity and intentions. This case was heavily debated over its approach, it is argued that Sara’s approach to the story was unethical, selfish and careless towards employees who did not agree to their personal opinions being exposed to the public. Although argued, Sara’s reporting was explained to be ethical due to her aim of improving conditions for precarious workers who were being disrespected in the workplace and by the agencies who hired them for unpredictable periods of time. Fire foods are one of the largest industrial bakeries in Canada who supply to massive companies such as ‘Dunkin Donuts’, employing thousands of employees a minimum wage. Hence, the extreme popularity and wealth of the company caused Sara’s article to bring uproar and immediate attention. The employee’s exposure to the article was immense, photos of them at work, as well as photos of owners from the companies involved, surrounded the internet, giving the sources unasked for attention.

Many employees shared personal information such as what their annual salaries were and how their working conditions had affected their mental health. One employee quoted “Supervisors shout at us to wake up. They shout at us to move faster, pinch nicer, work harder. No one talks through the noise and exhaustion, we struggle.”.

When is it too far?

The many forms of journalism that contradict the agreement of confidentiality such as undercover journalism and eavesdropping, if used inappropriately, take it too far. In Sara’s case, she balanced between overstepping her power however her article was based on the ethical value of employees, justifying her actions. A journalist, as quoted by the MEAA journalist’s code of ethics “Respects the truth…and should be responsible and accountable” insinuating the need for journalists to be accountable and responsible of their actions when taking questionable and dangerous action to achieve their stories. If they obstruct the source’s confidentiality agreements by exposing certain information, they may put their source in danger or expose them to an extent which they do not feel comfortable with.


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