CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Siegal committee.
There’s an old adage that claims journalists are only as good as the sources that feed them. Here’s a new one: Journalists are only as credible as the ethics that guide them.
Robert Novak’s now controversial column raises important journalistic questions about sources, disclosure, and anonymity.
His handling of those questions shows how the credibility of journalists – and the lives of subjects and sources – can turn on the use of a word, the disclosure of a name, and the use of anonymous sources.
Novak’s assistant declined a request that he discuss the column, but his previous comments suggest he might have benefited from a more rigorous decision-making process.
The situation underlines the importance of taking three critical steps before clicking the PUBLISH key:
- Examine your principles.
- Ask more questions.
- Consider the source.
Examine your principles
The ethical issues emerging from Novak’s actions place all three of Poynter’s guiding principles into tension with one another. What could Novak — or other journalists — do to report the truth as fully as possible? How do they make their decisions as independently as possible? How do they minimize harm?
Ask more questions
One way to begin would be to ask more questions that might raise red flags. The questions, which apply as much to undercover police officers and local government whistleblowers as to CIA operatives, include:
- Is the name critical to the story?
- What specific position does the individual hold, and how specific and essential is the description of that position to the story?
- What’s the most accurate word to describe the individual’s position? (Novak wrote that he regretted using the word “operative.” He indicated he has used the word in a different context and didn’t give his use of it much thought this time.)
- What consequences could result to the individual, and others, if the person’s name, and/or position, becomes public?
- Who else – besides the sources and subject – could help a reporter understand how sensitive or dangerous such a disclosure might be?
- What conditions would argue for the disclosure of the name in spite of the potential harm to the individual?
- What alternatives exist to identifying the individual?
Consider the source
When considering whether to promise confidentiality to a source, journalists need to think through the consequences of such an offer. The first place to start might be with the source’s motivation. Joann Byrd, a former ombudsman for The Washington Post and one of the outside journalists on the Siegal committee at The New York Times, proposes a careful evaluation and honest characterization of sources. She believes it’s important to know whether readers or viewers might doubt the value of the information if they knew the source providing it.
Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Bob Steele offer their own guidelines for evaluating sources. They recommend probing the source’s motivations, whether the journalist feels rushed to use the information, and how journalists can challenge their assumptions. They propose four criteria to consider before using confidential sources. One of the most important involves determining that the story “should be of overwhelming public concern.”
Geneva Overholser, the Journalism Junction columnist for Poynter Online and another former Washington Post ombudsman, argues for naming more sources, noting that many news organizations fail to follow their own rules on the subject.
Return to the source
In a recent column explaining his decision to name the CIA operative, Novak wrote that the CIA asked him not to use the person’s name but never suggested any danger to the individual, or anyone else, if he did.
It might have been helpful for Novak to verify that view with the source. He also could have sought more sources for their views of the potential harm he might inflict. Journalists who elicit sensitive information from sources need to review that information with them, making sure both the journalist and the source understand the consequences of divulging it.
By disclosing the identity of a CIA operative in his July 14 column, Novak provoked a Justice Department investigation of his sources and raised serious questions about his ethical conduct. Taking the time to answer a few ethical questions before publication can sometimes protect a reporter from having to answer more questions later.
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