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Reviewing the Reporter’s Privilege

by on October 2, 2015

After considering Frontline’s “News War” documentary, I found the topic of source protection and confidentiality to be quite timely and imperative. As shown in “News War,” the Plame leak and supplementary investigation led journalists to stand up for source confidentiality and strive for what is known as the “reporter’s privilege.”

The cases of both Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper exemplify the unspoken, inherent loyalty of the journalist-source relationship. Miller even spent 85 days in prison for refusing to cooperate with attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. That being said, where do we draw the line? Source protection is obviously imperative to professional relationships and journalistic credibility, but are journalists willing to go to prison to save their sources?

The question of “how far is a journalist willing to go to protect the identity of his or her source” is a compelling, ethical dilemma that will surely vary from journalist to journalist. Seeing that journalists are to be held completely accountable for both their stories and their actions, does that then mean that journalists should be held accountable for source protection? Does accountability cover sources? And to what extent?

Personally, I would protect the source confidentiality agreement for two reasons. The first being that my source could be put in harms way if his or her name were to be revealed. There is a reason that anonymous sources agree to comply anonymously, and that is because they have something to lose of fear should their name be published. Why risk a source’s safety? If a source is confiding in a journalist under the preconceived notion of anonymity then it is indeed unethical to break that promise of confidentiality. The second reason, more professionally selfish than morally sound is the concept of credibility. If you are the journalist who is known as “the one who reveals its sources” then no one will want to give you information – anonymous or not. Your credibility as a journalist is forever scarred. How does one bounce back from that? Journalists are only as good as their sources: It is imperative to keep those good source relationships.

However, much of this personal speculation about source protection has never been tried. I can only imagine what I would do should the situation arise. It is nice to think that we would stand up and protect our sources if need be. It’s easier said than done. Who is to say that I wouldn’t buckle under the pressure of the government and the possibility of jail time? I have yet to be faced with this ethical question, especially on the scale at which Miller and Cooper were tried.

While the Plame case brought source confidentiality to the forefront, it also resurfaced the reporter’s privilege. The reporter’s privilege, varying from state to state and federal circuit, promotes a journalist’s right to refuse to give testimony that would reveal a source’s identity. The SPJ Code of Ethics states that journalists must “identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.” The SPJ Code of Ethics considers general sources with this statement but neglects to address the ever-so-essential confidential source.

Confidential sources are vital to the practice of journalism. Without these sources, crucial cases that have changed the landscape of journalism would not exist. Consider Watergate: Mark Felt’s role as “Deep Throat” was essential in Bob Woodard and Carl Burstein’s epic reporting. In this case, the anonymous source, and the journalists involved were a necessary check on the Nixon administration. Without Felt’s information the discovery would have never been made. Granted, Watergate is an extreme example of journalistic victory, a victory nonetheless that worked because of an anonymous source.

Thus, the reporter’s privilege would only strengthen the journalist-source relationship. If a source is promised confidentiality even in the pursuit of pressure from the federal government, then the likelihood of a source coming forward with valuable information would increase. In guaranteeing protection, journalists maintain credibility and create the opportunity for informative, confidential conversations.


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