Sources under siege: The need to protect the flow of news in the digital age

This is adapted from a talk I gave to the annual conference of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen, May 20, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Last year I was asked to prepare a presentation for an investigative reporting symposium that’s held every year at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

My assignment was to offer an overview of the state of investigative reporting in the USA.

This was a time when the country was, in principle, on the declining end of the anti-terrorism panic that gripped the nation after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. National leadership had changed too, and the country was now led by an administration that was winding down the two wars the government of George W. Bush had begun, and had essentially repudiated the war in Iraq.

The president himself, Barack Obama, was well-read, well-spoken, and well-educated. He had spoken approvingly of greater cooperation with the press, greater support for open government, and greater tolerance for whistleblowers within government.

Hence, what I found was surprising. Among the practitioners I interviewed there was widespread, almost unanimous, agreement that the climate for tough, investigative reporting had worsened dramatically under the Obama administration.

Part of that had to do with the industrial transformation the US media were, and are, undergoing. That transformation has weakened many news organizations—especially the once-pivotal regional press. They are left with neither the financial muscle nor the editorial will to conduct lengthy in-depth projects and to pay the lawyers who may be needed to protect from reprisals the reporters who carry out those projects.

Nor is there confidence among the media that the emerging news-consuming public has the appetite its elders once had for such journalism.

The subject I want to talk to you about today is a less-apparent dimension of this more difficult environment for investigative reporting (which is merely the more glamorous term for what we really recognize as accountability journalism.)

This dimension concerns the vulnerability of sources.

Sources are more vulnerable than ever before, thanks in part to the same technological marvels that we associate with the digital revolution.

The media have been slow to recognize the potential exposure of their own sources as a problem, not just for their news operations, but for the larger purposes that journalism is supposed to serve. Continue reading “Sources under siege: The need to protect the flow of news in the digital age”