Confidential Sources: Price of protecting sources gets higher for journalists

With more courts ruling against reporters who refuse to name their sources, PR pros wonder whether confidential information will stay off the record.

With more courts ruling against reporters who refuse to name their sources, PR pros wonder whether confidential information will stay off the record.

Confidential sources have always been an integral part of investigative journalism. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to speak of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting of the Watergate saga without mentioning "Deep Throat," the infamous source whose identity remains a secret to this day. Although there has been much speculation as to the informant's true identity in recent months - much of it due to a recent exhibit at the University of Texas featuring Woodward and Bernstein's reporting notes - both journalists are still committed to protecting the identity of their most famous informant.

These days, it seems that more newspaper and magazine articles and broadcast reports are featuring the phrase "sources say" when reporting on groundbreaking stories. Honoring the sanctity of those "off-the-record" conversations and keeping a confidential source's identity is part of the unofficial journalist's oath. But recent events have shown that journalists' commitment to protecting these relationships sometimes have severe consequences.

The decision by a three-judge panel to uphold the jail sentences of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time's White House correspondent, Matthew Cooper for their refusal to name their sources in the Valerie Plame case is perhaps the most high-profile example. The two journalists are being asked to identify the sources as part of a special prosecutor's investigation into leaked information that Plame was a CIA operative.

In December, Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter with an NBC affiliate in Rhode Island, was convicted of contempt-of-court charges for refusing to reveal a source and was sentenced to six months of home confinement. Although his source eventually came forward on his own, Taricani was still sentenced.

Concerns for the industry

Some might consider it to be admirable that these journalists are keeping the promise of confidentiality to such sources. However, the fact that the courts continually refuse to respect a journalist's decision to keep sources confidential could be of concern for those who regularly deal with the media.

"This sets an incredible precedent, not only for the journalism world, but also for PR," says Ray Kerins, EVP and managing director of corporate communications and media relations at GCI Group, adding that, in today's information age, such events are "incredibly unfortunate."

"Editorial integrity and corroboration of stories needs to take place," he says. "But I do believe, for the major trusted sources of news out there, they're all striving to hold the highest level of editorial ethics and integrity, and this just puts an entire system out to pasture."

In media training his clients, Kerins says that one of the main parameters is that off the record is not a good choice for anyone. Still, he maintains that giving background information to a reporter often benefits everyone involved; the reporter is better educated on the issues, something that could ultimately benefit the client. "You learn to build trust and relationships," Kerins adds. Such developments could have an impact on the level of trust between journalists and PR practitioners. "Can I trust that reporter that I speak to tomorrow on that background session? Can I trust that it's going to hold?" he asks.

Peter Himler, chief media officer at Edelman, agrees that cases where journalists are prosecuted for not revealing sources could have an affect on PR. "The implications are tremendous for our industry," he says. "If there was a fear that journalists might betray their sources, I think that, for certain types of clients, we would be less forthcoming." He adds that the issue could affect clients in all industries, from entertainment to business.

At heart, the issue is one that could affect how information finds its way to the media. As such, it is something that affects a number of industries.

"Anybody who works with the media and is involved in the flow of information to the media has got to be concerned about these kinds of developments," says Peter Mancusi, SVP of Weber Shandwick's New England corporate practice and a former business editor at The Boston Globe. "When you compromise relationships between the journalist and the source, you compromise the journalism. And when you compromise the journalism and the free flow of information, the public suffers."

While Mancusi is unsure of the exact implications for the PR industry, he acknowledges that PR professionals should be concerned because of the significant role they play in that flow of information. And while Mancusi hasn't seen this pose a problem yet, he says there is the possibility that this issue could impact a number of industries that work with the media. For PR pros, the getting-to-know-you meetings coordinated between clients and reporters could potentially be affected.

"The ability to put your client in front of reporters where you want them to meet for relationship-building purposes or to help a reporter on a story without being cited could conceivably be compromised," he says.

Although most information passed to a journalist via a PR practitioner or his client is not typically likely to be the subject of a court case, the fact is that off the record is still a privilege employed by many who have regular contact with journalists. "We try to be transparent, and nine times out of 10 the information that we provide to a journalist is in the public domain," Himler says. "But sometimes there are reasons you wouldn't want to be cited as a source."

The cautious approach

Sallie Gaines, SVP of media at Hill & Knowlton's Chicago office and a former journalist with 23 years of experience at the Chicago Tribune, says she doesn't believe the latest incidents involving journalists and confidential sources will have an effect on her clients because of the agency's advice about off-the-record dealings with reporters. "One of the things we stress is that there is no such thing as off the record. Never count on it; can't happen," she says. "The stakes are now too high for reporters to protect you through thick and thin."

One caveat, she says, is if a personal relationship exists between the client and the reporter. "If you have a long history with someone, you make the call," she says of the advice she gives to clients. "I would caution that even if you have that great relationship, you really should think twice."

Gaines acknowledges that she has been part of off-the-record relationships during her time as a reporter and as a PR practitioner. She says that if a trustworthy reporter with whom she had a longstanding relationship needed off-the-record information "to point him in the right direction," she would provide it. Still, she stresses that given the climate in which a journalist's right to conceal the identity of a source - something she says has been the case for at least the last 20 years - the consequences could be too great.

"It's extremely risky," she says. "I think, by and large, PR firms are going to become more 'straight and narrow' when it comes to off the record."

The latest and most visible case, involving Miller and Cooper, is far from over. Both journalists, with the full support of their respective publications, plan to appeal the decision, creating the possibility for the issue to go to the US Supreme Court. And because PR is so closely linked with the media, reporters are not the only ones concerned with the outcome.

Himler says, "It does put a chill on some of what we do if, in fact, these news organizations do not prevail in this litigation."

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