Survey suggests journalists use confidential sources sparingly

Thursday, March 17, 2005

WASHINGTON — Responses to an online questionnaire offered to print and broadcast journalists in two national media organizations suggest that use of confidential sources in news reports nationwide is relatively rare.

A total of 711 journalists from 47 states and the District of Columbia responded to the survey. All were members of either Investigative Reporters and Editors or the Radio and Television News Directors Association, two journalism groups that partnered with the First Amendment Center in inviting members to respond to the questionnaire.

Journalism authorities say it’s the first such national survey in several decades. Among responses:

  • 86% of the journalists responding said the use of confidential sources was essential to their ability to report some news stories to the public.
  • 59% said confidential sources were the basis for just 10% or less of the stories they had written or broadcast in their journalism careers.
  • 10% said they had never used a confidential source.
  • 95% of those who completed the online survey said journalists should keep secret the identity of a confidential source even when facing a formal request from law enforcement officials.
  • 84% said they were willing to go to jail rather than comply with a court order to identify the source.
    Results were split – 52.8% “yes,” 45.3% “no” – on whether newsroom policy where they worked required them to “seek approval from a supervisor before granting confidentiality to a source.”

    “The responses are from only a small number of news professionals nationwide, but come from members of media groups I would expect to have a high percentage of journalists likely to use confidential sources,” said Gene Policinski,executive director of the First Amendment Center.
    “It suggests that use of confidential sources nationwide is relatively rare — other than perhaps in a few highly visible areas such as reporting from the White House or Capitol Hill. But the responses also suggest that even as journalists across the country use such sources sparingly, they see the method
    as vital when pursuing certain kinds of stories,” Policinski said.

    The response to the newsroom policy question “suggests that journalists substantially disagree among themselves about guidelines governing confidential sources. This could be confusing and even dangerous,” said John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center.
    Results of the sampling, conducted in December, were disclosed today during a seminar at the National Press Club on the subject of journalists and confidential sources.

    Recently, a number of reporters have been ordered to disclose confidential sources in a variety of criminal investigations or civil lawsuits. Several face jail terms for refusing court orders to name sources. Although 31 states and the District of Columbia have some form of “shield law” protecting journalists from having to name sources, federal courts generally have agreed with a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision that no such protection exists when journalists are called before a federal grand jury or while testifying in a federal court.
    Three proposals have been introduced in Congress to create a federal shield law. While generally protecting journalists, courts could force journalists to name sources in cases where the information cannot be obtained anywhere else and an overriding public interest exists — such as a true threat to national security.

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    Contact:

    Gene Policinski, 615/727-1303

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