Friday, February 06, 2004

Breaking Ranks

Hey, a reporter actually rethinks the whole source confidentiality thing. Baby steps.

Never burn a source. It's a cardinal rule of journalism: do not disclose the identity of someone who gives you information in confidence. As a staunch believer in this rule for decades, I have surprised myself lately by concluding that journalists' proud absolutism on this issue — particularly in a case involving the syndicated columnist Robert Novak — is neither as wise nor as ethical as it has seemed.


True, at the core of the pact lies the problem of anonymity. The same tool that exposes wrongdoing can foster it, and journalists' abuse of anonymous sources steadily undermines us. But it is incontestable that some information vital to a democratic public will reach it only through the protection of confidentiality. That is why more than 30 states and the District of Columbia have recognized a reporter's privilege not to be turned into an investigative arm of the government. This protection, never secure, is under increasing pressure from the legal system, causing journalists to feel ever more urgency about defending it.

As a piece of journalism, the Novak column raises disturbing ethical questions. He apparently turned a time-honored use of confidentiality — protecting a whistleblower from government retribution — on its head, delivering government retribution to the whistleblower instead. Worse, he enabled his sources to illegally divulge intelligence information.