Why would anybody talk to a reporter? The plight of the irreplaceable source

Why should people talk to reporters? It’s a question that’s seldom raised among news people, which is too bad, because it’s an important one.

When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.

Let’s back up. No honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however firm its legal protections, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to the reporter.

The mythology of journalism enshrines the sleuths, sometimes the editors, even the publishers, but sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom, one step removed.  The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is an empty abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.

Considering how important sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.  For starters, take the current national security cases, the unprecedented Espionage Act prosecutions that the Obama Administration is pursuing against whistleblowers who gave news reporters secret information about governmental improprieties and illegalities.

Nowadays prosecutors, for the most part, prefer to leave the press alone, and happily embrace the idea that even if an informant belongs in prison for handing over secrets for publication, the media organizations that actually make them public need not be answerable.

That practice reflects a cozy little entente between government and big media: The government avoids a public fuss, and the media buy themselves immunity at the cost of their sources’ safety.

Of course, as a matter of moral logic ignoring the press is absurd. If publishing something causes real harm, those responsible should be called to account—whether they’re former security contractor Edward Snowden or The New York Times.

More important, if the publication creates, on balance, a public benefit nobody should be punished—neither the mighty news organization nor its source.

But news sources have few allies nowadays. That’s not just in the national security realm. If you look at digital era news practices, the overall environment for sources has deteriorated, and potential informants have better reason than ever to keep silent.

Consider the channels through which reporters and informants communicate. News organizations routinely post email addresses for their reporters. But does anyone believe an email to a journalist is private, in the way a phone conversation would have been a decade ago?  Can the reporter even safeguard his or her own electronic correspondence? How many proprietors would pay to fight an outside litigant’s attempt to see that correspondence—even if it’s nothing more than some ex-boss trying to enforce a cockamamie “non-disparagement” clause that the source was pressured to sign on his way out the company door?

And once the story is published, even if the source knew enough to speak carefully and his or her comments were accurately rendered and properly contextualized (no sure thing, that), what then?

Then the source’s contribution will be subjected to the boisterous give and take of the online multiverse, and his or her words, motives and integrity will be denounced or impugned, often by pseudonymous dingbats, some of them undisclosed hirelings. None of that is fun.

To be sure, many informants are essentially professional sources, people sophisticated in handling journalists. They’re officials who are in the game, who know how to negotiate terms beforehand, and who know that their continuing value to the reporter will guarantee that they’ll be handled with consideration.

But the source who’s imperiled is the average Joe or Jane who has significant information the public should hear, but whose collaboration is a one-off thing; this person won’t ever be on any reporter’s speed dial. This is the source who steps from obscurity off a cliff into public notoriety, hoping the landing will be soft, perhaps expecting that with publicity will come some measure of protection, believing that speaking out is doing the right thing.

We don’t make it easy for them. They aren’t honored in the press ethics books or the civics texts, and the sociologists don’t bother studying how often they get hurt.

Yet they matter, crucially. They understand that talking to the press is what a responsible person does, an action that belongs among the indispensable elements of being a citizen, alongside the right to vote and the duty to give evidence in court.

That people talk to the press at all is something of a miracle, and it’s time sources began to get the respect and attention from the media that they deserve.

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