Should journalists protect their sources?

Last Updated on April 17, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

In the wake of New York Times reporter Judith Miller going to jail for refusing to reveal the identity of an unnamed source, of course I was asked about journalism and confidential sources, and should journalists protect their sources anyway?

I liken this situation to what would go through my mind if the New York Yankees ever played the Cuban Nationals. I would have a hard time deciding which team I wanted to lose.You see, confidential sources aren’t something you’re supposed to use very often. Since the biggest journalism event of the previous century–Watergate–couldn’t have stood without Deep Throat, people tend to assume it happens a lot. In reality, you ought to see a rude four-letter word somewhere on the front page more often than you ought to see an unnamed source in a story.

I was taught that unnamed sources are inherently unreliable. Think about it. Why would you have any interest in what I had to say if I wasn’t willing to sign my name to it? When my name’s not on it, it doesn’t matter what kind of a lie I tell. It’s not going to affect my reputation any. The best source has something at stake by talking to the journalist. A lot of people find talking to journalists to be tedious and unpleasant, but let’s face it: People respect people whose names they see in the newspaper. So a journalist inherently ought to seek out people who have a need to build or protect a reputation.

To my knowledge, I only ever used unnamed sources once. That was in a story about college students drinking underage and getting DWIs. None of the students I interviewed wanted their names used. Every attorney I interviewed did. That’s predictable. And since the unnamed sources’ stories sounded reasonable, nobody questioned me over their use. My assurance that these people really lived and weren’t the product of my imagination was enough. The story ran.

But that’s one problem with unnamed sources: A lot of times they’re just a cover for laziness. It’s a lot easier to make up quotes than to get them. And if you’re not willing to divulge a name and a phone number, and the editor is willing to take you at your word that you talked to these people, unnamed sources can result in a lot of fiction being presented as fact.

That’s why I’m not a fan of unnamed sources. They should be a last resort, not a first resort. If one person’s willing to talk, someone else ought to be as well, and maybe that other person has a name and is willing to let you print it. And two unnamed sources lend more credibility than one. It’s a little harder to fake, for one thing.

But Ms. Miller used unnamed sources. And this unnamed source revealed the identity of a CIA operative during a time of war, which is a crime. Since she wouldn’t reveal the source’s name, she’s doing time.

And that’s why I liken this to the Yankees playing the Cubans. On one hand you have a journalist using an unnamed source. On the other hand, you have a government that considers this a time of war when it’s convenient, but not really a time of war when it’s not–there’s that little bit in the Constitution about only Congress being able to officially declare and wage war, for instance. And that government really seems to be eager to gobble up freedom these days. Without a truly free press, that’s one less check and balance. Thomas Jefferson once said newspapers are more important than government.

So I’m wondering a lot of things, including how Ms. Miller could have broken that law when we aren’t officially at war, but also if we were to lose a free press, how we would get it back. It’s a lot easier for the CIA to get another operative.

Journalist-source confidentiality is supposed to resemble that which exists between a doctor and a patient, an attorney and a client, or a priest and a parishioner. And while there are exceptions to those often unspoken confidentiality agreements, they are just that: exceptions. If during the course of gathering a story an unnamed source told me he committed a murder, or another heinous crime such as child abuse or rape, that’s obviously an exceptional situation. A journalist who has just learned such a thing should be compelled to go to the police, as should a priest.

While a CIA operative being unmasked is a more exceptional situation than someone confessing to having run a red light or having spent the previous evening at a disreputable entertainment establishment, I have a difficult time mustering up the same sympathy for the CIA as I would the family of a victim of a violent crime. Murder, rape, and molest ruin lives. Did Ms. Miller’s source ruin the CIA? Ms. Miller’s source certainly changed the life of that CIA operative, but is that along the lines of murder? Isn’t this situation one of the hazards of the job?

So while I don’t like the practice of using unnamed sources, and I’m anything but a big fan of the media as it exists today, I believe that a free press is a necessity. And by that I mean a truly free press–not a press that’s free to print things I agree with. The Soviet Union had that. The Pravda was free to print whatever the government would allow it to print.

Once you lose a truly free press, it usually takes a very bloody revolution to get it back.

Unfortunately, both the far left and the far right tend to want to suppress opinions that don’t agree with theirs. I believe that the people who disagree with me have the right to print whatever they want to print. I’m confident that enough people will see that they are idiots and will agree with me. And in those instances where I’m the idiot, how else would I ever find out that I’m the one who’s wrong?

So while I’m not willing to call Judith Miller a martyr–some headlines have–I believe I can make a case for siding with her. I don’t see how I can make anything but a very wobbly case in support of the government.

Those who don’t agree with me ought to click on that link a few paragraphs back that features some quotes from Thomas Jefferson.

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6 thoughts on “Should journalists protect their sources?

  • July 8, 2005 at 12:57 am

    "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it."
    Thomas Jefferson

    I believe the terrorists have declared war. Congress can only accept their declaration and it’s four years to late for that.
    How many New York’s, Madrid’s, and London’s will it take before we realize there are people, professing a violent religion, that wish to kill us?

    "European merchants supply the best weaponry,
    contributing to their own defeat."

  • July 8, 2005 at 8:49 am

    Who exactly is a journalist? Someone with a degree in journalism? Employed by a publication with a circulation greater than x? With a journalist’s licence issued by the state?

    I would not want there to be a state-recognized class of "Legitimate Journalists" who have more rights than the rest of us. If we want every man to have a confidentiality privilege for anything he publishes, maybe that’s okay.

  • July 8, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Dave, you said:
    "It’s a lot easier for the CIA to get another operative."
    "Ms. Miller’s source certainly changed the life of that CIA operative, but is that along the lines of murder?"

    Now, it’s not my nation and I don’t really have a vested interest in the matter, but when an undercover intelligence operative is revealed, it’s not just inconvenient – it’s dangerous. And it’s not just dangerous for them, it’s dangerous for any and every other operative they’ve worked with or even unwittingly come in contact with. Revealing one person’s name could result in a lot of people dying. It’s possibly an open question whether it would be murder, as it might be through due legal process. Spies of the USA in other countries may very well be criminals liable for the death penalty. However, the reporter who revealed that one person’s name – pulled the threat that started the whole thing unravelling – would still be responsible for the deaths – or even just revelations. They’d be betraying USA interests and USA employees.

    • July 8, 2005 at 7:44 pm

      Amen, Don. Well said.

  • July 9, 2005 at 8:23 am

    Who is a journalist? Anyone who owns a press, or who is able to convince someone who owns a press to print what s/he writes. If you can produce a press card issued by the publication and a copy of the publication, you’re a journalist. PERIOD.

    I’ve had mixed feelings on whether journalists should be licensed the way doctors and engineers are licensed, but since there is no objective way to determine whether a journalist is qualified, making journalism into a licensed profession would also eliminate a free press.

    By that definition, anyone with a dime in his pocket and Kinko’s around the corner is a journalist. That’s precisely the idea.

  • July 9, 2005 at 8:26 am

    “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”
    Thomas Jefferson

    Ah, so Thomas Jefferson and I have something else in common. But that doesn’t make the free press any less important.

    I’m not saying the government doesn’t have the right to wage war. But it does not have the right to suppress the rights granted in the Constitution.

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