Journalists’ Duty to Report Leaks

Posted by Taylor Siedlik

A recent New York Times article written by Margaret Sullivan brought a concern to my attention that needs to be addressed: the duty of journalists to report leaks. Under the Obama administration, six “whistleblowers” have been prosecuted for leaking vital information to the public. Some of them have even been sent to jail. Given that the federal Espionage Act has only been used three times to prosecute leakers in 92 years, could this mean a change in the way journalists report leaks?

One of the first things a young journalist learns is that the point of journalism is seeking the truth and reporting it. This includes all truths, even those that could potentially anger some people. The public has a right and deserves to know the truth of what is happening both in our country and in the world. The journalists’ primary duty is to the people, and ensuring that news is accessible to all people.

I do understand where the Obama administration could be coming from in prosecuting leakers. Given the current state of our world, it could prove harmful if certain government protocol is reported.

North Korea especially is on our radar, after nullifying the armistice that has been in place since 1953. Protecting our country is more than important, but at what cost does it come if our people are stuck in the dark about what is happening news wise?

Even the Vatican is having its bouts with leaks. A butler for the pope, Paolo Gabriele, revealed to investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi high levels of dysfunction that placed some of the highest officials in the Catholic Church under strong scrutiny. This mission to discover the truth was highly dangerous for Gabriele, as the Vatican has a very strong security system powerful enough to read the lips of anybody within.

Finding the truth is one of the things journalists pride themselves on the most, sometimes at great risk to themselves and others. Does reporting on dangerous leaks fall into a journalists’ duty? It seems to me like journalists won’t stop anytime soon in reporting what needs to be reported, no matter the repercussions.

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9 responses to “Journalists’ Duty to Report Leaks

  1. Reporting leaks is an ideal way to maintain the standards of the journalism profession. However, in my opinion journalism is not the be all and end all. If there is potential danger in revealing a leak I would not fault a journalist for putting his or her well being before their career. It is basic human nature to put individual interest first.

    I think it says a lot about the type of people that pursue careers in journalism when you mention that it appears they have gone to great lengths to continue reporting. Journalists are either crazy, or extremely good people with great concern for their fellow citizens. I’d like the think the reason they continue to report is the later.

    • I agree with putting your own well being before a career. Unless a career involves life threatening actions each day, such as a police officer or fire fighter, I wouldn’t want to risk my life to get a certain story or angle. I had never considered calling journalists crazy, although the amount of work we put into one story could be called crazy by some.

  2. Really interesting and topical post! Leaks and sources have been a debated issue in journalism for years, and yet we still haven’t found a solution. I think you’re right in that there is a delicate balance between portraying the truth and protecting national interests. The fact is, there is a lot that happens in the US government that the public doesn’t know about (as we’ve seen with the recent drone debates). While this may be seen by some as a bad thing, it is a journalist’s responsibility to decide whether or not the information will ultimately serve the public good. In all, a story must be really game-changing to risk jail time for our source or comprised national security.

    • I totally agree that a story needs to be worth more than just publishing a story to get something done. You need to have something personally invested into the story, and are hoping to uncover something that can really serve to help the public.

  3. I think when looking at this risk your national security/life/jail time for the truth dilemma it is important to weight the costs and benefits. Is the leak ground breaking? Does it endanger people? Does it put people in danger if they don’t know?
    For me I would most likely err on the side of truth over safety. However, this is not a decision to be made alone. If at all possible, when looking at these matters, it is extremely important to include others that can bring different outlooks to the decision.

    • I hadn’t even considered looking at outside opinions (although I’m sure an editor would have something to say about it). Overall, I think if a large majority of the population’s safety is at risk, the story should probably go unpublished. It may be important for them to know the truth, but at what cost would it come to them?

  4. This is yet another tricky area of journalism. Although I did enjoy the last part of Monica’s response about the crazy mentality of journalist to push their craft the extreme. I believe it depends on the journalists style, I personally would not find any interest in reporting leaks or putting myself in harms way to blow the whistle on under the table political issues. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be reported. It should, just with caution.

    I do agree that as journalists it is our job to distribute news to the public but, my question is how far are publications willing to go to protect their journalist who do go after leaking stories?

  5. As journalists we seem to have to make a lot of really tough decisions! I completely agree with you that the public has a right to know what is going on in the country they live in and around the world and as journalists, it’s our job to bring them that information. However, what if, like in the example you give, the person(s) involved with the story could be in danger if the information is released? And like some of the previous comments have said we have to figure out where we draw the line for our own safety. I feel like there is a certain point were leaks shouldn’t be published if it hurts everyone involved. If it’s hurting someone then it’s not worth it.

  6. I totally agree that the public has the right to know what’s going on in our country and world but at the same time I feel as though there are some things that we do not need to know or don’t have enough background in the subject to be able to get the full picture and not get freaked out. Where do we draw the line? Just like in photojournalism- this is a total grey area. I think these situations should evaluated cases by case because it’s so tricky.

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