Journalism and Sources

It could be said that a journalist is only as good as his or her sources. Journalists carefully cultivate a variety of sources to provide their readers and viewers with diverse perspectives and fair, balanced, and complete news stories.

No journalist in a democratic society would be content to rely solely on a press release as the primary source for a story. Sources are not limited to people but can include documents and other fruits of news gathering, such as photographs, audio recordings, and videotapes.

Journalists may use government information such as judicial or executive branch agency records to provide an initial tip or story idea or to corroborate data provided informally by individuals. For example, statutes such as Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws create affirmative rights of access to government records and proceedings for both the press and the public, and court rules and common law principles, as well as Constitutional provisions, guarantee Access to Judicial Records and Access to Courts. Similarly, a business reporter might consult industry spokespersons to obtain basic information about a corporation but will also contact current and former employees, contractors, government regulators, and consumers to flesh out the story.

Attempts by prosecutors and defense lawyers to issue subpoenas to reporters to obtain their testimony or to compel themto produce unpublished materials are usually resisted, often by relying on state Shield Laws that provide journalists with varying degrees of protection.

Journalists fiercely guard their sources, for competitive as well as ethical reasons. Although the Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), refused to recognize a comprehensive First Amendment testimonial privilege and in Herbert v. Lando (1979) was particularly skeptical of the existence of any privilege in libel cases, most reporters consider a promise of confidentiality to be sacred and will face sanctions, including jail or monetary fines, if necessary to protect the identity of a source. They realize that the failure to honor a promise to a source means that sources will ‘‘dry up’’ and that the public will receive less information as a result. In Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991), the Supreme Court held that a promise to conceal a source’s identity could be enforced by a court without violating the First Amendment rights of the journalist.

Sources may also be compromised through the execution of search warrants. In Zurcher v. Stanford Daily (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that news organizations are protected from unreasonable searches by the Fourth Amendment, but Congress subsequently passed the Privacy Protection Act (1980) to ensure that newsrooms would be subject to search only under very limited circumstances.

Journalists must always be on their guard to avoid being ‘‘used’’ by a source to transmit disinformation and must strive to remain sufficiently detached from a story or a source so that their ability to analyze it objectively is not compromised. Reliance on too many confidential or undisclosed sources can undermine the credibility of a story and erode the confidence of readers and viewers.

JANE E. KIRTLEY

References and Further Reading

  • Blasi, Vince, The Newman’s Privilege: An Empirical Study, Michigan Law Review 70 (1971): 229–284.
  • Dalglish, Lucy A., ed. Agents of Discovery: A Report on the Incidence of Subpoenas Served on the News Media in 2001. Arlington: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 2003.
  • Kirtley, Jane E. ‘‘Shield Laws and Reporter’s Privilege: A National Assessment.’’ in Surette, Ray, ed. The Media and Criminal Justice Policy. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1990, pp. 163–176.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972)
  • Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991)
  • Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153 (1979)
  • Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978)

See also Access to Judicial Records; Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972); Cohen v. Cowles Media Company, 501 U.S. 663 (1991); Freedom of Information Act (1966); Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws; Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153 (1979); Media Access to Information; Privacy Protection Act, 94 Stat. 1879 (1980); Reporter’s Privilege; Shield Laws; Subpoenas to Reporters; Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978)

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