The ironies of source protection

December 12, 2005

The idea that reporters have a duty to protect their sources has an honored place in journalistic lore. It goes without saying that Woodward and Bernstein would never have burned Deep Throat. In “The Insider,” “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman is tormented by the possibility that the tobacco industry whistleblower he tried to shield might be harmed.

And now, one of the more troublesome issues in the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson is the degree to which reporters have wriggled out of confidentiality pledges and talked to prosecutors about conversations they were supposed to keep private. It seems unlikely that Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s deposed chief of staff, would ever have been indicted if not for evidence from reporters who had agreed to keep him from exposure.

Jack Shafer, the influential media writer for the online magazine Slate, wrote a thoughtful column last week headlined, “If protecting sources is paramount, why don’t more journalists go to jail?”

It’s a good question, but it rests on a shaky premise.

The fact is that source protection is miles from being a paramount concern for journalists. Forget confidential informants for the moment. Apart from them, obligation to sources is a miserably neglected area of journalism ethics. The wellbeing of informants, and the ways that the reporting they contribute to may rebound on their lives, are things that journalists worry about rarely, if ever.

Consider garden-variety sources. Often they are vulnerable and unsophisticated people with outsized expectations of what publicity will do to their lives. They may believe that talking to the press will make them celebrities and immunize them against reprisals, even when they say things that are certain to infuriate people who can harm them. Encouraged by the affable reporter, they may share observations that will make them look ridiculous – as the journalist knows.

A case we discuss in our ethics class involves a woman in a small New England town who was the subject of one of those perennial “first baby of the year” stories in the local paper. As it happens, she was a single mom, welfare-dependent, who prattled on about how happy she was that her toddler now had a sister, and how, since she could rely on the dole, she had nothing better to do than have another baby.

The happy-face story hit the wires, and the delighted mom became a calendar-girl among Welfare Queens, vilified nationally on talk radio as a social parasite.

Should somebody have nudged her, midway through her idiotic – though revealing – reflections, and pointed out that she was dousing herself with gasoline in the presence of a professional with a lighted match?

I’m not sure. People have a right to know where their tax money is going. But if source protection were truly a journalistic duty, the answer would likely be yes. Reporters would caution people they were interviewing when they were saying things that might well hurt them, that the story they were helping create was unlikely to cure the conditions they were eager to deplore, that they were taking part in a process whose consequences were unknowable – and, above all, that they were on their own.

If source protection were a duty, vulnerable informants wouldn’t have to ask for anonymity. Every ethics code I know of that addresses the issue admonishes reporters to name sources whenever possible. The reasoning is sensible: information from named people is credible and verifiable, and sources can be held accountable for falsities.

But what about the wellbeing of the source? What if confidentiality is in the source’s best interest? Shouldn’t the reporter encourage it?

Fine, keeping sources secret isn’t the reporter’s job. Getting information is hard enough. But it’s reasonable to ask whether the superior knowledge the reporter has of the likely consequences of the source’s comments confers any obligation. If minimizing harm is a journalistic value, shouldn’t that begin with the source?

The fact is, source protection becomes an issue only with canny, high-level officials who use the press as another lever of influence and who demand confidentiality. Their need for protection is dubious, but their continuing cooperation is of great value to the journalist. So in a turnabout of Marx’s principle, they get protection based not on their needs, but on their abilities.

True, a thoroughgoing concern for the welfare of sources could constrain reporting in ways that would be paralyzing, and journalists can’t be both zealous reporters and PR consultants. But it’s deeply ironic that a profession that’s supposed to have special sensitivity to the underdog routinely follows practices that ignore – if they don’t aggravate – the plight of the most vulnerable people who seek its help.

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