Saving Sources: Time to Stand Up

Introductory Remarks, 8th Annual Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting, organized by the Investigative Reporting Program of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, April 26, 2014

Welcome to Berkeley, where we’re observing the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which is a natural segue into the theme of this year’s symposium, which focuses on the beleaguered condition of news sources.

This is something I’ve been talking and writing about for the past few years, so I’m very glad to be able to take a few minutes to tee this up before I hand off to the organizer and star of this gathering, Lowell Bergman.

I have three main points:

1. Press freedom is meaningless without source freedom.

2. Neither the media, nor the courts, nor even our frayed system of civic education has ever assigned sources the importance and respect they deserve.

3. And finally, the media need to step up institutionally for their sources.

1. To my first point, which should be obvious but apparently isn’t: press freedom cannot be any more expansive and any more robust than source freedom.

No press can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to a reporter.

If your informants are muzzled, your editorial vision is blinkered, and press privilege, whatever its constitutional status, is a dead letter.

If ordinary citizens don’t step forward, the press can’t do its job.

The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is a hollow abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.

In sum, press freedom is really source freedom, one step removed.

2. So why do sources get so little respect? I can offer a few reasons.

For starters, many sources are self-serving professionals.

They engage in sophisticated negotiations directed at harvesting as much personal or institutional advantage as possible from brokering information to reporters.

For them, being an informant is a business transaction, and for us, that service is undeserving of much respect.

Whistleblowers confront a different kind of ambivalence.  By definition they’re renegades, outliers. And to some degree, as Dan Ellsberg suggested to me over lunch a few weeks ago, journalists regard them as traitors, as well as troublemakers.

They throw sand into the gears of the routine collaboration, not to say complicity, between news organizations and the institutions they cover, in which ordinary news serves as a lubricant.

They have few friends.

But the source I’m focusing on who’s imperiled isn’t just the professional or the whistleblower.

It’s the average Joe or Jane with significant information the public should hear, but who won’t ever be on any reporter’s speed dial.

This is the source who steps from obscurity off a cliff into notoriety, hoping the landing will be soft, maybe expecting that publicity will confer protection, believing that speaking out is the right thing to do.

The right thing to do.

Being a source never has had the stature we routinely assign to other civic duties — such as voting, attending public hearings, paying taxes, giving evidence in court.

Yet going public is a civic act — and it is perhaps the quintessentially civic act—it goes to the soul of citizenhood, of forcing public matters onto the public square.

3. So, on to my third point, how to explain the media’s neglect of sources.

Some of the text books claim that source protection is among the ethical duties of journalists. But when you look more closely at what the reporter’s obligations consist of, you find that they consist of rendering the source’s words accurately and in context and, if the reporter has agreed to withhold the source’s name, he or she should do that.

Beyond that, the media are brutally indifferent to sources. I know of no scholarship into what happens to civilians who figure in news coverage—are their lives changed, for better or worse? The journalism academy doesn’t care.

I know of no ethics book that prescribes an obligation to stand up for a truthful source who suffers reprisal—whether from an employer, a landlord or a government. Do the media feel obligated to expose and criticize the reprisal? Apparently not.

Or now, when an unnamed source is prosecuted without being identified by the reporter—through electronic surveillance? Do the media protest?

Doesn’t the news media’s duty to safeguard the flow of publicly significant information confer an obligation to see to it the people who are the sources of that information don’t suffer for it?

This is a challenge to public attitudes and to public policy – if sources who expose wrongdoing are civic benefactors, as I believe they are, it’s immoral to punish them.

Any laws that authorize or permit that are bad laws.

Other countries allow those who violate secrecy rules to plead that, on balance, they performed a public service, and if a court agrees, they walk free.

So should we. If we did, we wouldn’t even need reporter shield laws.

I hope you thoroughly enjoy your symposium sessions today and tomorrow, as much as we’re delighted to host you here.

Now it’s my pleasure to introduce the organizer of the conference, one of this country’s most accomplished and most honored journalists, whom i’m pleased to consider a colleague as well as a friend, Lowell Bergman.

 

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One thought on “Saving Sources: Time to Stand Up

  1. Ed — Thanks for saying this. Beat reporters, especially, should come to understand that it is not only ethically right but in their self-interest to treat sources with respect: You’re gonna need them over and over. Another point: I question the commitment to the democratic process of officials who punish those in their agencies, etc. for speaking honestly to reporters. Good work, Ed, and sorry I couldn’t get to the symposium this year, but our little investigative organization was well-represented by my colleague and wife, Naomi Schalit.
    — John Christie, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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