Posts Tagged ‘Government’


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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The Ethics of Looking Away

President Barack Obama departs the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House after he delivers a statement on the federal government shutdown, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pretend for a moment that a building inspector is assigned to inspect a building. He tells the facility’s management. The very helpful building manager escorts him into one room that has been carefully arranged beforehand. The manager stays with the inspector as he inspects that pre-arranged room. Then he escorts him out of the facility. They part on great terms and the inspector writes a report accurately describing what he has seen. But, as is customary, he says nothing about being blocked from seeing any other part of the facility or about the manager escorting him at every step.

What do you call that, other than astounding? Can it be anything but corruption? Doesn’t it go beyond being horribly dangerous to all but ensuring public harm?

But aren’t those controls parallel to what journalists do when they always or almost always go through public information officers or other management to get a comment or interview someone, whether at a government office, a business, nonprofit or other entity? And don’t those similarities hold true whether journalists do it voluntarily or involuntarily?

What about all those other “rooms” — or the people who are prohibited from talking or prohibited from talking without PIO oversight?  Don’t such controls almost guarantee the story will be skewed (or partially skewed) in the way management wishes? What would members of the public think if they understood how such journalistic “inspections” work?

And then, when the building later burns down due to faulty wiring –or, say, the Veterans’ Administration is found to have all kinds of problems–aren’t those highly controlled “inspections,” by an inspector or journalist, a basic and foreseeable part of the dysfunction?

Aren’t journalists arbitrarily waiving the public’s right to understand how government and other institutions are working?

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken an historic step over the last several years in leading other journalism groups in saying these controls through public information officers or others are wrong and dangerous.

It may be time to look closely at what working under these restrictions does to the ethics of journalism itself.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should, “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Reporting that’s accurate but misleading due to the controls of the powerful represents poor accuracy indeed.

The code also says, “Verify information before releasing it.”  Please take it from some veteran reporters: when staff people can’t talk without the oversight done for the bosses, some among them might very well be able to blow your story out of the water.

Indeed, the best guess is always that if you were able to talk to several people fluidly, without the controls, the story would be different and better.

The SPJ code says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”  But the PIO controls are constructed of conflicts of interest. People in management who want to maintain a good image, their jobs and their agenda use the PIO controls to manage what the public is allowed to hear. Reporters are conflicted by the fact they can have their access cut off if they don’t submit to the controls or they otherwise do or write the wrong thing.

How could people not perceive conflict of interest, if we told them about the controls? Actually, the process would look to many people like public relations being sold as journalism.

For the journalists’ who don’t want to fight these intense restrictions, the reasons generally come in two categories. The first is, “We can’t do anything about them.”

One thing to consider there is that we can’t do anything about them probably because journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

But more basically: what kind of journalistic ethics is that? Massive systems are constructed to control what the public hears—a hazard to the public, one might say—and journalists decide it’s best not to talk about it?

The second reason journalists give for not fighting these controls is that “good” reporters get the story anyway.

Notice, first off, that it is just not happening very often. Many stories are initiated by the offices or agencies themselves and there is little more in the news coverage than what the officials say and (maybe) some outside opinion. How is it possible there is nothing happening other what the centers of power announce?

But also, how can journalists ethically assume they have the whole story when millions of people are specifically silenced?

Those many, many closed doors behind PIO controls are in government, schools, universities, police forces and elsewhere, across the culture, as we know from surveys sponsored by SPJ and done by Carolyn Carlson for Kennesaw State University.

They regularly conceal much education and perspective that journalists need. But given the vast numbers of those doors, some of them also hide some of the most astoundingly evil things in our society. Think, for instance, about the institutions that hid child abuse for years and, then, about the rules against school personnel talking to reporters.


Kathryn Foxhall is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

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