Journalists and Bloggers in pursuit of an interview for a story often promise interviewees confidentiality and anonymity. “This is the only way some sources will share information; anonymity in exchange for the interview or the “story,” states Associated Press Stylebook, page 390.
When a journalist promises to keep their source’s identity a secret, this becomes a confidentiality agreement, a legal binding contract. If breached, the result can be a lawsuit. For example, in the 1991 Supreme Court of the United States case, Cohen v. Cowles Media, the latter was sued for breach of confidentiality by Dan Cohen, an active republican during the1982 gubernatorial race in Minnesota. Cohen supplied the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch (Pioneer Press) and the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (Star Tribune) with documents on another politician under confidentiality, as noted on scholar.google.com. The court ruled in favor of Cohen, awarding him $200,00 and citing, the First Amendment is not a defense from damages resulting from a broken promise.
Tosha Thomas, a Los Angeles based Editor/Blogger with www.urbannetworkdigital.com and www.thecardiva.net holds herself and other journalists accountable when making a promise not to use a source’s name or likeness in an article. She agrees that a promise is a promise and journalists have the right to protect their sources.“All a journalist really has is their word and reputation. When people feel they can trust you, they are more willing to be open and honest. The source should be well-informed of the scope and intent of the story,” said Thomas.
On the other end of the spectrum is the journalist or blogger who refuses to give up their source to the courts, even if it means his or her own incarceration. New York reporter Jana Winters was subpoenaed to appear in a Colorado court in 2013 to identify two law enforcement officers who told her James Holmes, the shooting suspect in the killing 12 people in 2012 at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, had mailed a notebook showing violence being inflicted upon a psychiatrist. New York’s Shield Law saved Winters from that situation. Click to see interview.
Judith Miller is another New York reporter who went to great lengths to protect her source and honor the confidentiality agreement with him. According to CNN.com, Miller served 85 days in jail because she refused to testify and give the name of her White House source. As noted in the Washington Post, her source leaked the name of covert CIA operative Valarie Plame, putting her “undercover” status in jeopardy and violating a 1982 law that prohibits the disclosure of the identities of covert CIA officers.”
Miller eventually testified before a grand jury. However, it was only after receiving a letter and a call from her source, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Chief of Staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.
While Thomas applauds media professionals who honor the confidentiality agreement, she says, “Journalists have to be mindful that everyone is not willing to put their lives, livelihood and name on the line for your story. A decision needs to made on what is more important…the story getting to the masses, or naming the source. Safeguards are in place to protect sources…anonymous tip lines and confidentiality clauses. It’s important that sources be vetted. The reason why a source wants to be go unnamed or remain confidential needs to be known upfront.”
By Lin. Woods
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