Advocacy Ethics

Protecting Media Sources in the Digital Age

Those who serve in the supply chain of news and information, whether reporter or source, must be assured of appropriate protections to enable the identification of truth and the subsequent guidance of this truth into a form that serves the greater public good.

There’s a battle being waged in American courtrooms surrounding transparency and, to some people, it may seem inconsistent with key tenets of an important value for public relations professionals..

The Obama Administration has been driving increased enforcement of secrecy laws and policies, while pursuing sanctions against government officials who disclose government secrets and the reporters who use this information to report on issues that concern us all.

Most recently, the focus has been on forcing an author to disclose a source he used in a book about the Central Intelligence Agency. James Risen, who is a reporter for The New York Times, documented the clandestine nature of the federal government in “State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.”

The battle over disclosure of Risen’s sources for his book, being led by the Justice Department for the past several years, has taken a turn in the author’s favor. Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that Risen could limit his testimony in the trial of a CIA official charged with providing classified information for the book.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this ruling has not garnered attention beyond journalism and policy wonks inside the Beltway. After all, what Judge Brinkema did, in essence, was extend protections offered to journalists and their sources by roughly 80 percent of the states and the District of Columbia to the federal level. Interestingly enough, protections for journalists and their sources do not exist in matters involving the federal government.

PRSA’s Belief in First Amendment Protection for Sources

Beyond providing an opportunity to restate our profession’s (and PRSA’s) firm belief and commitment to First Amendment protections for the media and journalistic sources, this decision provides rise to yet another instance where public relations professionals must be equipped and prepared to participate in situational decisions that are as old as our democratic system.

We must be confident in addressing topics personally, as well as in sourcing subject-matter experts from the public sector, to help audiences understand the increasing complexities of governance and society without fear of retribution by the federal government

Per the PRSA Code of Ethics, we must be open and honest in all that we do, but this openness and honesty must “protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.” The Code continues to say that such behavior is an essential aspect of serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society. In addition to this hallmark statement in the 2000 rewrite of the Code of Ethics, PRSA further reiterated this responsibility in 2005 in response to a U.S. appellate court ruling that two journalists could be jailed for up to 18 months if they failed to disclose confidential sources.

The bottom line is that all who serve in the supply chain of news and information, whether reporter or source, must be assured of appropriate protections to enable the identification of truth and the subsequent guidance of this truth into a form that serves the greater public good.

In an era where our sources of information are an eclectic mix of traditional media and dynamic, Internet-delivered content, we must never forget that the original foundation of journalism dates back to the founding of our nation and the crafting of the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of a free press then was to serve as the people’s watchdog over a nascent republic, one that had emerged as a result of a level of distrust and disconnect with a distant government that exploded into the creation of a new form of government.

The needs and requirements of the individuals and audiences we collectively serve today are no less important.

Blake Lewis, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and principal and senior consultant at Lewis Public Relations.

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