Safeguarding News in the Era of Disruptive Sources

Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017 ABSTRACT Obligations and loyalties that develop between reporter and source both enable and enrich—and impede and corrupt—the flow of publicly significant information to wide audiences. Source relations are at the core of journalism practice, yet they are a thinly developed area of journalism ethics, […]

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 Continue reading “Saving Sources: Time to Stand Up”

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”