Rules and ethics governing journalists review

rules and ethics governing journalists revealing sources. The writer explores cases in which journalists were ordered to reveal sources and refused. The writer also examines the protections that journalists have from revealing sources and argues that it is those protections that provide the ability to bring the public the news. There were five sources used to complete this paper.

The freedom of the press has provided a powerful cloak of protection in the interest of getting the news out to the public, however in recent years some of the elements of that freedom have come under scrutiny as issues of justice and security have come into play. Journalists who bring the news to the public often develop confidential sources who are willing to tip a journalist off to things that are happening that the public would wish to know. These sources may be high placed political figures, law enforcement officers, or others who could not provide the information to the media if their identy was to be attached to that information. The journalist takes the information that the source provides and then locates people who can go on the record about the issue and writes the story. The issue of revealing sources has always been a controversial issue in the world of mass communication however, in light of recent terrorist events, journalists getting caught making stories up and other things that have brought the industry into the public eye the question of revealing sources has become more heated. While there will always be the occasional problem that is created by a journalist’s refusal to reveal his or her sources the right not to reveal them must be supported. Without that right the press will ultimately fail to break open wrongdoings that the public has the right to know about thereby removing much of the power that the American public holds over its elected officials and others.

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The topic first came to my attention when I read about several journalists being threatened with jail if they did not receive their sources. I initially believed they should reveal them until I looked into the wide reaching ramifications of having them do that. If journalists are not allowed to protect their sources many of the sources will refuse to come to them in the future with information. This will mean that things the pubic has a right to be made aware of including political corruption and criminal activities will no longer become public and it will be allowed to continue and expand. The end result will be disastrous.

Recent events in the area of journalistic freedom to not reveal sources hit the news again when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of several journalists who were ordered to reveal sources in a case that ultimately resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement to the man who claimed to have had his privacy unearthed when sources revealed information to the journalists and they refused to provide the names of those sources.

The settlement erased civil contempt of court citations against reporters for refusing to disclose who leaked them information about an espionage investigation of Lee, who was fired from his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (Sherman, 2006).”

In recent years America has seen an increase in the number of journalists that have been slapped with subpoenas that demand they reveal their confidential sources in various stories.

Many times the demand stems from a journalist finding out about political corruption by way of a leak form a confidential informant who has first hand knowledge but cannot publicly speak to the problem.

These sources provide information about espionage, payoffs, illegal activities and other matters that are of interest to the public and hurt those who are involved in the cover-ups.

For reporters who cling to the claim that the First Amendment shields them from subpoenas and protects the identity of their confidential sources, contempt orders, hefty frees and a jail bed await (Dreiling, 2004).”

During the 1972 Supreme Court case, Branzburg v. Hayes, it was ruled that journalists did not have the right to refuse to respond to demands from a grand jury. Since that ruling journalists and their organizations have continued to refuse to reveal sources even when faced with jail terms for that refusal (Dreiling, 2004).

When that decision occurred a total of 49 states moved to provide shield laws for journalists who did not wish to reveal their sources for their stories, however there is no federal shield law which means when a journalist uncovers a story about federal corruption or problems and is ordered to reveal the leak or source that tipped them off they have no protection against punishment if they refuse to reveal. However, if they do start to reveal sources, then future informants are going to be hesitant to alert the media when corruption takes place (Dreiling, 2004).

News organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Dow Jones and Company, Gannett Company, Bloomberg and Fox News are asking courts to recognize a reporter’s privilege. Without such privilege, news organizations worry that subpoenas will be used to harass journalists and intimidate government workers (Dreiling, 2004).”

Since the events of 9-11 courts have gotten less lenient about journalists claiming that the first amendment protects them from revealing sources. Even in cases that do not involve terrorism journalists are being incarcerated for refusing to cooperate with the demand to know who their sources were. Last October a New York Times reporters and a Time magazine reporters were both jailed for their refusal to tell a federal grand jury who tipped them off to the fact that the wife of a former U.S. ambassador was a covert CIA

Operative on weapons of mass destruction.

The two journalists were not only jailed for their refusal to tell who their source was they were also each fined $1,000 a day until they were willing to tell (Dreiling, 2004).

That order was held until an appeal can be heard.

Part of the problem involves the legality of a government official leaking information to the press that should have fallen under their confidentiality agreement. The leaks are at times criminal offenses on the part of the official who provided the information and the demand to have the journalist reveal that name is so that person can be charged. If the journalist doesn’t reveal the source there is no way of knowing it if was in fact a government official or other person who had a confidentiality agreement. It is ironic that journalists are jailed for not helping someone jail an official who helps bring corruption to public light.

Many experts believe that the issue of a reporter’s privilege is quickly headed back to the Supreme Court as more cases arise that are on a federal level.

Within that controversy will most likely include whether journalists can seek out information with the pre-promised protection of confidentiality to the informant. In the case against the Seminole in which civil laws suits were filed following stories about a tribal investigation that the paper conducted one exhibit introduced to the trial was a memo sent by the reporter to the person he needed the information from.

A understand the position this letter puts you in, but I’ve only the interest of the tribe at heart,” Goldstein’s letter reads, in part. “I’m aware that you may be in possession of certain documents that could help our pursuit of the truth…if copies of those documents were to arrive in an envelope that has no return address on it, the truth will get out and there will be no trace.. (Flowers, 2000).”


The time has come to pass a federal shield law (Pass, 2006). Some of the most significant corruption has been uncovered at the federal level over the years and the journalists who break those stories deserve to be protected in the same way that state and local level journalist are protected. When Nixon was exposed it was because a journalist was given information that lead to that story being revealed. When Clinton was exposed it was because someone provided a lead to a journalist who took it from there and uncovered the truth.

If journalists are not protected from revealing their sources at all levels of government or legal areas they will no longer be able to obtain the tips that allow them to uncover wrongdoings.


Dreiling, Geri L (2004) First Amendment protects journalists and that the majority… National Catholic Reporter.

____(2006) EDITORIAL: Pass Federal Shield Law From: Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Flowers, Charles (2000) Newspaper Lawsuit Still on the Griddle

Seminole Tribune

Kellman, Laurie (2005) Senate considers protecting reporters who won’t reveal

AP Worldstream;

Peele, Thomas (2006) Reporters claim privilege to protect source

Sherman, Mark (2006) Supreme Court Turns Down Reporter Appeal

AP Online

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