For Your Eyes Only

It was a fascinating night last night at TKE, thanks to an amazing discussion on journalism and confidential sources with store owner Betsy Burton, media attorney Randy Dryer, and former journalist Lucinda Kinkead (part of ABFFE’s nation-wide events program; for an interesting story on this topic, see the ABFFE’s home page re: Donald Trump). The discussion covered everything from the rapid rise of news blogging, the law’s lag behind technology, the differences between state and federal laws regarding sources, the shrinking market for newspapers and its effect on investigative journalism, and the coming administration’s attitude towards journalism.

This is a topic I knew pretty much nothing about, going into the event — the only case of confidential sources I could even think of was the infamous Watergate-Deep Throat connection. But I got a thorough education last night, and am intrigued enough to continue scouting around for information and to start monitoring the progress of the proposed federal shield law for journalists.

The issues are so enormous and so complex, it’s hard to believe that any reporting gets done at all. For example, confidentiality means different things to different people. Can you reveal their position, but not their name? Or is their position enough to identify them and cause them professional and/or personal harm? Then there’s the question of who counts as a journalist. How do we know who the laws protecting journalists (or not protecting them) and their sources apply to? Do bloggers count? What kind of bloggers?

One of the most interesting (to me) pieces of our talk was about blogging and fact-checking. Part of the downfall of investigative journalism has been the highly publicized cases of sources providing false information and journalists fabricating sources and stories. Clearly, fact-checking is incredibly important. And, as we all know, part of the problem with getting your news online is knowing where it came from and whether or not it’s been verified (think the Wikipedia question). Enter Snopes, The Smoking Gun, and others. Lucinda said that she believed that as news becomes more of a commodity online, fact-checking institutions are also becoming more prevalent and pervasive, increasing the quality (as well as the quantity) of online “journalism.” A reassuring thought, for those of us who rely (possibly too heavily) on our feed readers for the update!

To give you a taste of what you missed, here’s a scenario we ran as a group — can’t wait to see how you all vote!

HYPOTHETICAL
CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES

You are the editor of a major metropolitan daily newspaper with a morning publication. Two canditates, Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones, are engaged in a hotly contested race for governor, a race the polls show is a dead heat. The day before the election, a paid campaign staffer of Mr. Smith contacts one of your reporters and offers to provide court documents about past criminal activity of Mrs. Jones, but only if the reporter promises that the newspaper will not reveal the staffer’s identity in any story about the criminal activity. The reporter agrees and the documents are turned over. The documents show that Mrs. Jones was charged 10 years ago with three counts of unlawful assembly and that six years ago she was convicted of petty theft. The documents appear legitimate, but there is insufficient time to verify the information. The reporter writes a story about the revelations, which is set to be published tomorrow, the day of the election. However, the managing editor wants to publish the story onlyif the source is identified by name and position, arguing that the reporter did not obtain permission from the editor to promise confidentiality as required by newspaper policy and that the identity of the source of the informaiton (a staffer for Mr. Smith) is necessary information for the reader to evaluate the credibility and motivations behind the last-minute revelations. In addition, on election day, the paper intends to editorially endorse Mr. Smith.

Do you publish the story? In making your decision, consider the following questions:

  1. Is the story newsworthy?
  2. Should you consider the potential impact on the election and the fairness of the story to candidate Jones?
  3. What are the motives of the source?
  4. What is in the public’s best interest?
  5. What is the impact of the newspaper’s editorial endorsement of Mr. Smith?
  6. Should you reveal the identity of the source? What could be the consequences of doing so?
  7. What are the consequences for the paper’s reputation if you don’t run the story, and word gets out that you had the information before the election?

Vote in the comments and tell us why you made your decision!

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