There was an interesting story in the New York Times the other day about a New York journalist who burned his source, a former gangland mistress whom he had interviewed a decade earlier for a potential book.
The result of the reporter’s disclosure is that murder charges are being dropped against a retired FBI supervisor. The reporter had previously promised the source “to use the information only for a book, avoid attributing it to her and refuse to cooperate with any criminal prosecution arising from publication.”
The reporter, Tom Robbins of the Village Voice, told the Times he had struggled with his decision to come forward with tape recordings that showed the former mistress, a key witness in the the prosecutor’s case, had dramatically changed her story over the years about the defendant’s role in assisting in four murders by his informant. The Times quoted Robbins as saying, “I did not know what else to do. No journalist ever wants to go against a source. It’s against our creed.”
For the sake of discussion, contrast Robbins’ assistance with the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who refused to reveal their source for grand jury testimony, even after the source — an attorney in the case — lied in court, denying he was the source of the reporters’ information. The reporters were compelled by their scruples to report in their newspaper perjured testimony from their source that they knew to be wrong.
So what are the limits, if any, of a reporter’s obligation to protect sources and “keep promises,” as the SPJ Code of Ethics puts it?
Peter Y. Sussman,
Member, SPJ Ethics Committee