When Journalists Oppose Using Leaked Documents But Favor Relying on Statements from Anonymous Officials

Findings from a survey of over a thousand journalists by two Indiana University professors were recently released. One finding involving the publishing of leaked documents is rather stunning

According to the survey by David Weaver and Lars Willnat, “The percentage of US journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization’ dropped significantly from 81.8 percent in 1992 to 57.7 percent in 2013.”

The survey was conducted online between August and December. That, perhaps, makes the findings even more remarkable: journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitra and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman would have already published quite a few reports based off documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Reflecting this shift, Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor at Newsweek and a columnist for the National Journal, recently suggested the media had become “too loose in publishing anything they can get their hands on.” Although noting some exceptions, Taylor argued the trend has been, “if we can get our hands on it, some secret program, we publish it. And I think there has not been enough attention to which of these leaks do real damage to national security and which do not. I think the media has put out a lot of stuff from Edward Snowden that does real damage to the national security and accomplishes very little in terms of protecting our privacy.”

Dan Primack of Fortune outlined what aspects of America’s public pension system should be kept secret by journalists and not disclosed. “I know there is a knee-jerk reaction by some to argue that all of it should be put online, and let the chips fall where they may,” he wrote, and then proceeded to assert “underlying portfolio information” and “fund economics” should not be made public. (It was a direct but veiled response to work journalist David Sirota has been doing at Pando.)

It is further reflected in this attitude among press that “WikiLeaks differs from journalism,” that publishing government documents cannot possibly be a journalistic act.

The attitude toward publishing “confidential business or government documents without authorization” would seem to contradict other attitudes among journalists surveyed. More journalists than when this survey was first conducted in the 1970s believe their role is that of a “government watchdog.” It is “one of the most important functions of the US news media.”

How can a journalist perform the role of “watchdog” if they are asking corporations or government for permission to publish details in documents these entities do not want the public to know?

A significant number of journalists, the survey found, are also seeking “additional training” in “documents and records utilization.” Where are these records coming from?

The Associated Press found, when conducting its annual review of responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, that the “government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 244,675 cases or 36 percent of all requests. On 196,034 other occasions, the government said it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.” The media organization concluded the “government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.”

If they are not getting documents through FOIA and are not being handed documents with permission from authorities in corporations or government, why bother with training?

There should not be anything particularly controversial about publishing government documents without authorization, especially if the contents will not pose any imminent threat to the national security of the United States. Yet, Weaver and Willnat have apparently, for decades, presented publication of documents without authorization as a “controversial reporting” technique like “badgering or harassing” informants, using hidden cameras or microphones or “getting employed to gain inside information.”

The legality of publishing, the fact that journalists have the right, would appear to be insignificant if these survey results are truly a product of aversion to publishing leaks. That publishing is part of a vibrant tradition of exercising freedom of the press would appear to be irrelevant as well.

James Goodale, who was the the chief counsel for the New York Times on the Pentagon Papers case, has been an ardent defender of the press’ right to publish. He said of the information from Snowden in an interview with NYTimes eXaminer, “As far as I’m concerned, [it] is protected by the First Amendment, as was the Pentagon Papers. In other words, the story that the Times ran, the Guardian ran, and that the Washington Post ran lawyers say is ‘protected.’ In other words, it is legal under the First Amendment.”

On the other hand, it seems likely that a number of journalists are increasingly persuaded by the state-identified view that reporters do not have the authority to make the decision that something classified or deemed sensitive is in the public interest and should no longer be kept secret. It is not up to them to challenge rampant over-classification, which has been systemic for decades. If it is classified, it must be for a good reason.

Notably, the survey by Weaver and Willnat did not ask journalists (and has apparently never asked journalists) about the practice of utilizing anonymous sources in reporting, which is just as controversial if not more controversial than using documents without authorization.

While major news media organizations may use less anonymous sources for front page stories than they did in 1978, Paul Farhi of The Washington Post wrote last December, “More and more sources are speaking to the news media on the condition of anonymity for the oddest of reasons.”

The number one complaint most New York Times readers tend to have is that reporters are overly reliant on anonymous sources for information. Public editor Margaret Sullivan has written about this issue, suggesting “readers are right to protest when they see anonymity granted gratuitously” but also acknowledging the crackdown on leaks by the Obama administration may have something to do with people unwilling to talk to reporters on the record.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s gag order for intelligence employees certainly does not help the chilly climate in journalism, where government employees fear retaliation or repercussions for speaking about what is happening in their workplace to reporters.

However, with the clear policies of intimidation against employees, especially lower-level employees, one should consider who is best positioned to be talking to reporters. They are probably individuals who would be the least vulnerable if their names were attached because they would be in higher-ranking positions. They are likely people who feel they are least at risk if they talk on record but are granted anonymity because their superiors may even approve of them making disclosures to the media to advance an agenda.

In fact, John Christie of Poynter explored this issue recently. “The two traditional culprits for relying on anonymous sources are lazy reporters and competition,” he argued.

The pressure to come up with information leads reporters to let anyone they can get to talk to them say whatever, speculate on the record, and then they can go publish it and say they got a scoop. This is the standard of journalism practiced by Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. And, rarely do his stories gain huge traction because the credibility of anonymous sources are always questionable. (Here’s one glaring example.)

Why more organizations are not polling journalists on this is unclear. The most prominent and easily available survey on this is from 1979 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It found 81 percent of 203 journalists surveyed considered “unnamed sources” to be “less believable” than “named sources.” Yet, 87 percent said the “use of unnamed sources was, on balance, a good practice.”

This would seem to be the dominant view in the profession today. Journalism is about access. The sources are people in positions of power who they can get to give them information quickly for breaking news. They are not typically there to uncover systemic corruption or reveal instances of abuse and gross injustices. They are the individuals in government triaging—rationalizing policies that might be outrageous so that they are more acceptable to the public.

Journalists would rather have access to power than be known as reporters, who regularly publish previously confidential business or government documents. It does not have to be accurate and true. Reporters just have to be confident it is accurate and true at that moment when it is published. They can always follow-up later if their sources have more information.

If journalists relied more on documents instead of government officials, it would decrease the perception the public has that the press is often influenced by powerful people or organizations. It would prevent socializing with individuals the public expects them to scrutinize regularly. Even picking up the phone regularly to talk to a spokesperson can lead to chummy exchanges that dampen the skepticism of a government policy or program.

The contents of documents are much easier to authenticate and verify, if journalists can get them. On the other hand, what an official wants printed anonymously may be very thin on facts. It may create the illusion of information when in reality the words are actually just opinions that function as a smoke screen and amplifies a government viewpoint without anyone having take responsibility for having that view.


Note: Inspired by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan’s AnonyWatch project at her blog, I recently launched a Tumblr called “Anonymous Officials Said.” It will keep track of most everything anonymous government officials are saying, whether they are from the US or not. Hopefully, it will force people to think about all that the public knows (or may think the public knows) because of anonymous officials and whether reporters are appropriately granting anonymity.

Clarification: Dan Primack left a comment on this post indicating that he never intended to suggest that journalists should not disclose certain information related to public pensions. I interpreted what he wrote differently. If this is not his view—that there are sets of information in the public pension system that are off-limits to publishing, I do not want to inappropriately make it seem like he holds this view.

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