Topic: Media

Journalism, Where the End Justifies the Means, Part 2: Protecting Sources Who Don’t Deserve Protection

There has been more than the usual amount of vainglorious posturing by reporters lately, centering on their supposedly noble “right” to keep the names of sources secret. Several reporters have faced or are facing jail time for refusing to divulge the names of sources when judges have been so impolitic as to insist on it, usually when the source has violated a law or a court order. One of the more interesting of these is Providence, Rhode Island television reporter Jim Taricani, who was facing jail despite a perilous medical condition (he is a heart transplant recipient) to protect the person who gave him a videotape used in the investigation of the massive Rhode Island government corruption scandal.

The tape, which showed a top aide to former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. taking a bribe, was aired in 2001 by Taricani’s station before trials in the case began. Taricani broke no law by showing the tape, but the person who leaked the tape did: the judge in the case had ordered that the evidence from the investigation remain secret until the trial. Taricani was ordered to reveal the name of the law-breaker, and refused, citing the reporter’s creed that sources must never be revealed.

Courts have occasionally given some support to this wholly invented (by the press itself) “privilege,” for the public policy rational that it provides some protection to whistle-blowers who can use a shroud of secrecy provided by reporters to get a timely warning to the public. Fair enough. But often this is not the use to which the reporter’s privilege is put. It is frequently used to protect government leakers with personal agendas, individuals with scores to settle or who want to use the press to do their dirty work, or professionals who are violating their own professional obligations by revealing confidences or clients, employers or patients. Why should these individuals warrant protection of any kind?

Why, for example, should columnist Robert Novak be able to protect the individual within the Bush administration who illegally revealed that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative? The public didn’t benefit from this revelation; it was harmed by it, if for no other reason than the ongoing investigation it set off has cost millions in taxpayer dollars. Reporters are protecting the identity of the individual (that is, criminal) who forged the Bush National Guard documents that ultimately did in Dan Rather. What purpose does this serve? One, of course, and only one: it keeps leaks and secret information flowing to the press. The benefit of this, as the media is quick to tell us, is that it facilitates the “public’s right to know.” (A benefit they do not mention is that it greatly assists them in selling papers and racking up television ratings.) The detriment, however, deserves some consideration as well. For reporters’ protection of those who reveal information that they are bound by law or ethics to keep secret is an enticement to engage in misconduct.

In the Rhode Island dispute, Joseph Bevilacqua Jr, one of the defense attorneys in the corruption case, finally came forward and admitted that he had given Taricani the tape. The Scoreboard will give Bevilacqua a half-hearted salute because he finally came clean (though not soon enough to prevent Taricani from being sentenced for criminal contempt), but the fact is that he violated the law (Surprise! Lawyers can’t do that!) and perhaps his duty to his client by his actions.

So help me with this, journalism majors. As an attorney, Bevilacqua will face serious sanctions and possibly disbarment for leaking the tape, as he is in violation of both the law and his professional duties. Yet we continue to accept the argument by the media that it is somehow noble for reporters to encourage and induce people like Bevilacqua to do what neither the law nor his profession deems excusable! Or to put it in general terms: How can an act be a bad thing, yet the encouragement and protection of that same act be a good thing? Stripped of all of its posturing and rhetoric, this is really what the media argument holds. Does this make sense?

Easy question. The answer: No. We should support reporters when they protect the identities of those who relay information to the press only when the act of relaying it is neither illegal or a violation of a professional duty. No protection for doctors who release their patient’s medical records, lawyers who rat out their clients, or government employees who leak classified documents. If these individuals feel that it is so important that the public get the information they have sworn to keep secret, they ought to have the courage to reveal the information openly. It makes no sense to exalt an imaginary journalistic right to keep secrets when its effect is to undermine more established, more justified and thoroughly codified obligations of secrecy applying to other professions.

Taking away any pretense of a media shield and requiring leakers to be courageous and open would certainly reduce the quantity of leaks. It would also, however, greatly improve the likelihood that when secrets are revealed in violation of laws or ethics codes, the public welfare, and not newspaper sales or television ratings, will be the reason.


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