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What's Wrong with a Free Press

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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On Sunday, a Google news search for "balloon boy" produced nearly 8,000 news story hits. The news that the Colorado sheriff planned to ask the district attorney to file charges against the boy's parents made a big splash. Other "big" stories within the last couple of weeks have been the story about the Yale lab assistant accused of killing Annie Le, and the attempted extortion of $2M from David Letterman by producer Robert Halderman.

All of those stories have hooks which make them newsworthy. They all fit into the category of man bites dog. For most newspapers and other media sources, there is simply no question that the stories will get a lot of attention.

The stories while sensational are not really very important ones. None of the stories impact large groups of people the way a foreign war or geographical disaster do. The stories do not have implications for a broad swatch of society as would a spreading flu, for example. No groups of people are losing homes due to badly financed mortgages or unscrupulous investment bankers.

Nevertheless, all three stories will end up in the criminal justice system and all will have been severely contaminated by pre-trial publicity.

This past weekend the Public Editor for The New York Times, Clark Hoyt, examined that newspaper's coverage of the Le and Halderman cases, particularly with regard to how The NYT used anonymous sources in their reports.

Hoyt concluded by giving The Times coverage a reluctant pass on the story about the accused killer of Le, who was described anonymously to a Times' reporter as "very officious and very demanding." Less charitably, Hoyt concluded The Times crossed an ethical line by anonymously reporting comments from a CBS colleague of Halderman and Letterman that it was no surprise that the case against Halderman involved money and sex because Halderman "lived on the edge" and had "a bit of a checkered love life."

I think The Times uses anonymous sources far too often and was wrong to use them in these instances. Proffers of anonymity should be extremely limited. Here is a portion of The NYT's policy:
"...anonymous sources should be used only as 'a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way.' "

Maybe if editors designated assignments in advance so that reporters knew which
stories they would be covering would not be news of "compelling
public interest," the reporters would recognize that they simply could not get
certain stories published with any anonymous sources.
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It also seems as if reporters covering compelling news should have to justify
in writing their use of anonymous sources. They should have to explain at a
minimum why anonymity is a last resort, efforts they have made to get the source
on the record and how their investigation has led them to conclude that the
information could not be obtained from another reliable open source.

Although it may not always be possible, the reporter's pledge of anonymity
should be given only after the reporter has obtained prior written approval from
an editor, with that editor's written conclusions as to why anonymity is
being granted.

While forcing reporters and editors to document in writing the grant of
anonymity in each case might be somewhat burdensome at first, it seems that if
the procedures were put in place as regular expectations throughout the industry, both reporters and editors would adapt. It is also likely that both groups would become less
willing to grant anonymity, except in extraordinary cases.

As with corrections pages, it is possible that newspapers
could include a daily anonymous sourcing note, explaining in which story (or
stories) anonymity had been granted and why.

With regard to info supplied by anonymous sources in matters that will end up in the courts there are at least four important issues to balance:
1. The public's right to know
2. The public's right to receive accurate and timely information
3. All parties right to a fair trial
4. Shield laws related to anonymous source protection.
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As a former deputy district attorney and freelance journalist (member of the Society of Professional Journalists and fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism) I'm struck by how little attention newspapers pay to the third issue- parties right to a fair trial. The attitude very much seems to be that courts and the legal system must take care of themselves and the job of the media is to get at whatever information they can to scoop the competition.

Here is what Phil Bronstein, then publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2004 regarding that paper's decision to publish sealed grand jury transcripts in the BALCO/ Barry Bonds steroid case. Those transcripts were illegally provided to the Chronicle, as it turned out, by an interested party in the case. Bronstein writes:
"We don't believe that it's our responsibility to enforce federal secrecy provisions surrounding grand jury proceedings.

We do believe that it is our responsibility to provide as much information as possible to help people make decisions on issues of importance to them, often referred to as 'the public's right to know.'"

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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