Do we need journalists to enable leaks?

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Walter Shapiro makes the standard argument for why journalists shouldn't have to disclose their sources:
The Bush White House has been the most locked-down in history for reporters. And future administrations, even Democratic ones, are likely to emulate this nearly impenetrable Karen Hughes-inspired, message-discipline approach, under which even innocuous unauthorized conversations with the press can be potential firing offenses. As a result, the only way that even a glimmer of truth can emerge from places like the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA will be if government officials trust reporters to keep their identities secret. That means that reporters must stand their ground amid the predictable frenzy of leak investigations. It is not an appealing bargain if a reporter promises to protect a source as long as it is convenient.

Reporters serve two important functions in the propagation of leaks (or news in general):

  1. They disseminate the information.
  2. They vouch for its accuracy.

The Internet has rendered the first function more or less obsolete. Sure, back in the old days you needed someone with a printing press to publicize the story, but today anyone with an Internet connection can put up a web site and send an anonymous pointer to a random reporter. If that fails, they can e-mail Atrios, Powerline, or Drudge. If the story is interesting and even vaguely plausible it will be picked up by someone, regardless of the provenance.

That leaves us with vouching for the accuracy of the information. This is clearly an important function since you're hardly in a position to verify something like the Pentagon papers yourself. However, we need to ask how important knowing the source's identity is to allowing the reporter to do this. There are three major cases here:

  1. The information can be independently authenticated. I.e. it's on official paper, contains secret information the reporter otherwise knows, is digitally signed (hah!), etc. In this case, it's not really important to know who the leaker is, since the reporter can do their own checking.
  2. The information isn't directly reportable but is a useful lead. It's not really that important for the reporter to know the source here either. True, they potentially risk wasting a bunch of time tracking down the lead to find it's bogus, but that's not exactly a crippling blow to journalism--it just makes it a slightly more expensive profession to pursue.
  3. The information can't be independently authenticated. In this case you're basically taking the reporter's word that they've checked out the source and it's legit.

The third case is pretty much the only one in which it's critical for the reporter to know the source's identity, because they're personally vouching for the story on the basis of the source's position. Obviously, if journalists don't manage to protect their sources, then this would tend to deter this kind of non-anonymous leaking. Of course, this doesn't mean a fatal blow for journalism, but we'd need alternative ways to vet sources and information.

The obvious procedure is to build a long term relationship with an anonymous source (the literature on pseudonymous communication is extensive). The source starts by providing information which is semi-secret and independently verifiable. After they've built a reputation for providing useful information to the journalist the journalist can start to trust unauthenticatable information. As I understand it, this is much the same procedure that one uses to vet information from foreigners who offer to provide intelligence--a case where you can't trust them based on their position because they could be working for a foreign inteligence agency to entrap you. Obviously this wouldn't work as well and would make it difficult for one-time unauthenticated leaks. But it's not clear how often that really happens. It's certainly not clear that it happens enough that removing the possibility would destroy journalism.

It's also worth noting that the value of category (3) leaks derives almost entirely from our ability to trust that reporters can adequately vet the accuracy of information--since they are concealing the information we would need to vet it ourselves. In the wake of the CBS debacle, the public's willingness to trust journalists in that way--justified or not--has probably decreased quite a bit. It's particularly ironic that Judith Miller is the journalist in question here, since it's precisely her inability to accurately assess her sources credibility that led her to get her reporting on WMDs so badly wrong.

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3 Comments

These arguments fail to close the loop. Newspapers often live & die on the scoop, and reporters depend on their network of leakers to maintain that lifeline to their employers. How to maintain the lifeline? What is the coin that a newspaper can provide to a long term anonymous source? Good press!

If the papers love someone, you can bet that they are a regular leaker (I know this of McCain). Likewise, someone who takes the law, and their oaths seriously will be hated.

Can the government abuse the classification system? Of course. But upon what grounds does the press claim a moral right to have access to every piece of provisional data, every ephemeral rumination of an administration? (If Republican-- we didn't get these complaints about Clinton.)

Do newspapers really "live and die" on the scoop anymore? There are very few cities which still have competing broadsheets. My (uneducated) impression is that subscriptions are the most important revenue source, where longterm reporting is more important than simple "you heard it here first!" reporting.

I'd tend to think scoops matter, in some sense, for television stations, but that there are institutional reasons why newspapers still focus on them. Similar to the institutional reasons why when a major story breaks, the reader probably doesn't want all of the details developed in one story in one major paper... if there's some hooks hanging for others major newspapers to investigate, the story will continue to break over several days, which helps focus consumer attention on it, which in turn leads to deeper investigation. But if that doesn't happen, only the original newspaper's audience will really hear about it.

But, going to ekr's post, sometimes I feel like it's useful for a reporter to give information that they don't vouch for. But then it'd be important to write the story and headline like hearsay is treated in the courts... you can't accept X as true, but you can report that they said X. And if turns out that the person was lying, the reporter should go ahead and reveal the source -- anonymity shouldn't be used simply for spin control.

One side of this case I haven't seen covered is that Judith Miller is not just spending time in jail, she's building up her reputation capital. The longer she stays in, the more she builds up. Assuming she stays in jail for several months, until the grand jury is done, she loses income and suffers being stuck in jail. But, if I were wanting to be a confidential source for a reporter, she's the one I'd want to go to, assuming she sticks it out!

There aren't too many times you can actually think of jail time as an *investment*....

--John

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