It has troubled me for some time that SPJ’s most cherished goals are often in conflict — expecially, recently, FOI and ethics. So far, SPJ has not been prepared to acknowledge the conflicts, but I think we must. A few recent examples:
Exhibit A is Judith Miller. We fully supported her willingness to go to jail to avoid becoming a journalistic tool of the government. BRAVO! But Judith Miller also admitted to what most of us would consider serious abuses in the use of her sources. For example, she wrote in the Times that she had been willing to mask Scooter Libby’s identity — calling him a former Hill staffer — which she assumed he would want to do to keep the administration’s fingerprints off the story he was giving her confidentially. In other words, she knew he was trying to mislead the public, and she admitted to being willing to go along.
Then there were the BALCO reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle revealing grand jury transcripts from the baseball steroids case. They refused to acknowledge the source of the transcripts and came damn close to going to jail themselves to do so. We fully supported their defiance. Again, BRAVO. But once again, that laudable FOI action led them into some dangerous ethical terrain. The source of the transcripts turned out to be a defense attorney who was publicly blaming the other side — the government — for leaking the transcripts; he asked that the case be dismissed on those grounds. Naturally, the Chronicle reporters knew his charge was phony — they knew who their source was — but they printed the phony charge anyhow, and subsequently made further use of his transcripts.
In cases like these, it seems to me that we must continue to support the important First Amendment principles involved. But we must also be unafraid to criticize other practices of the people we’re supporting. After all, we’re supporting the principles they espouse, not the reporters themselves.
Finally, it seems to me that both cases suggest we should be giving a lot more attention to the process of granting confidentiality. This is the reporter’s choice, not the source’s, and we should insist that the conditions be both narrowly drawn and include an assessment of the importance of the confidential information to the public. That way, some of these conflicts could be headed off before they became constitutional issues. Too often confidentiality is given out by rote, with no clear aim or definition. I’ll close with a quote from an AP story on the North Korean nuclear talks breaking down, temporarily:
“A woman from the publicity department at the Bank of China, who would not give her name, said she had no information on the issue.”
Member, SPJ Ethics Committee