Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

Journalists and news organizations must work to protect their sources even when no formal promises or agreements are made between the two parties.


Missteps in handling and reporting classified information may jeopardize the identity of sources and ultimately dissuade other people from leaking important information that may be vital to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department today announced charges against a government contractor for leaking classified information to a news outlet about an hour after The Intercept published a classified document from the National Security Agency.

The document dated early May “was provided anonymously” and details – among other things – an alleged Russian-led cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier before the November presidential election, according to The Intercept’s story.

The Justice Department’s affidavit says the news outlet – assumed to be The Intercept – contacted the government agency on May 30 and provided a copy of the classified document. The agency examined the document and noticed “the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

The crease and/or fold was enough to steer investigators toward employees with physical access to the information, according to the affidavit. Of the six people who printed the report, only one had email communications with the news outlet.

As far as I can tell from online news reports and the Justice Department’s affidavit, the source’s arrest cannot be directly blamed on The Intercept’s decision to turn over a copy of the leaked document. Investigators may have been able to identify the alleged leaker due to email or other activity.

The affidavit does suggest The Intercept’s decision made the government’s investigation easier, however.

Journalists and news organizations should not hand over copies of leaked documents to the government, as pointed out on Twitter by Emily Bell, who is the director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York.

The main reason for withholding those documents from the government is to protect the source’s identity. As happened in this case, investigators may be able to find clues that lead to the source – such as a crease, fold, watermark or other marking.

The situation Bell cites in her Twitter post resulted in a legal case between The Guardian and the UK government over leaked documents that contained markings that would identify the source.

In its nightly media newsletter, CNN cites a statement from The Intercept: The NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.

The statement seems to conflict with the Justice Department’s affidavit that suggests the alleged leaker had some communication with the news outlet.

News organizations usually have some communication with the sources of leaked information. In those cases, the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics is clear that journalists should “keep the promises they make.”

The Code is less direct when sources simply mail information to reporters without earlier or follow-up communications. Yet, journalists and news organizations still have an implicit responsibility to do all they can to protect sources of the information.

Journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to minimize harm that should be considered when reporting, writing and ultimately publishing or broadcasting information.

Additionally, leakers need to know journalists on the receiving end of information will treat those documents with the appropriate care and won’t unwittingly turn over information that jeopardizes their safety. If people can’t trust journalists to do all they can to protect people’s identities in these types of situations, leakers may think twice before sending potentially vital information to news organizations.

Beyond the news value of such leaks, it’s in the best interest of the country for people to leak information to responsible journalists and news organization instead of places like WikiLeaks.

Whether The Intercept unknowingly guided the U.S. government to its source is debatable at this point, but the situation an important reminder to other journalists and news organizations to be aware of their responsibilities throughout the news reporting process.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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  • Douglas Moore

    You can find a lot that is ethical or unethical, but I’ll talk about how it is unethical to leak and or to withhold information like this from anyone. So, yes I do agree with what Emily Bell said about journalist not giving the government these leaked documents back. I understand that in some situations it is the right thing to do, but in this event. I feel like they should have healed on to them. In chapter three of Ethics in Human Communication, Johnstone says that ” The spirit of love in persuasion, he believes,means that we are not motivated primarily by selfish personal interests. Instead, when persuading “with love” we respect the truth, respect the other persons participating, and respect those participants’ need to know the truth.” (Johannesen, Valde, and Whedbee 2008.) With that being said,I would say it was ethical for them to release this information. If you truly understand the statement for chapter three, than you understand that the person who leaked this information wanted people to know the truth.

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

  • Allen Billinger

    “Determining what information should be private or public in today’s society is a challenge. When it comes to the government having classified information, it’s almost a given that it should be private. The government has information classified to protect it’s citizens to information that can potentially be harmful in the wrong hands. In the book, Ethics in Human Communication(2008) a discussion on Natural and Social Science Contributions, Mark Johnson argues, “that the quality of our moral understanding and deliberation depends crucially on the cultivation of moral imagination”(p.45). Morally you wouldn’t want to hide information from the government for a couple reasons. The main reason is that it looks suspicious but also eventually the government is going to find out whatever it was you were trying to hide. Leaking government information through the news just isn’t ranked high ethically.
    Joseph Billinger
    Undergraduate Student, Business Marketing
    Drury University
    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

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