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Monday, November 10, 2008

Broken news?

Reader-submitted question: Apparently reporters had information about the presidential campaign and didn't release it. How is that journalism?

This is an excellent question. It gets to the heart of whether it is appropriate to make deals with sources.

An agreement to keep information secret until a certain date or time is called an embargo. Journalists agree to get certain information or unique access to something; in return, they promise not to report anything about it until a specific time.

This is common for some things, especially anything that is of high public interest but is very complicated. For example, the federal government releases embargoed copies of the budget to reporters each year. This gives them time to study it and think about what questions they want to ask the finance minister. They aren't rushing to air with half-researched stories just to beat the competition: if they want to get the information, they have to agree that they will all report the story at the same time.

In this case, teams of reporters were assigned to follow the Obama and McCain campaigns. In exchange for special access, they agreed not to report anything they learned until after the election was over. This has resulted in many fascinating stories, but one major ethical issue arose.

Republicans, you might want to look away for this part.

If reporters knew that Sarah Palin did not know that Africa is a continent or which countries are in NAFTA, were they not ethically required to reveal this information? After all, she COULD have become the vice president.

I am open to hearing other opinions, but my feeling is that they were NOT required to reveal this, and in fact were required to keep it secret until the agreed-upon date.

A journalist must be trustworthy. He or she cannot break promises unless there have been shenanigans with the source. For example, the source might be using the journalist's promise to embargo the information as a sneaky way to hide information that he or she cannot keep secret. You can't embargo information that is already public, even if it's tough to get. (If the candidate has a criminal record, don't even try to embargo it.)

Some journalists believe that if a source lies, it automatically cancels any agreements they made. However, there is no consensus on this, and editors make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Republican staffers have reversed their positions about Ms. Palin's ability to lead -- the same people who touted her political skills last week are trashing her now -- but I am not sure that that can really be considered lying. Breaking agreements with liars is usually justified by saying that the person was using the reporter. This is usually true, but most sources are using reporters. Even Deep Throat had an agenda. "The source used me" cannot be your only excuse for breaking your word.

Reporters should not agree to terms they are not willing to follow. In this case, certain teams of reporters agreed to the embargo and others didn't. If the teams that were not operating under the embargo had discovered this information, they certainly should have reported it. It happens that they didn't discover it. We learned it because the embargo lifted.

Thanks for your question.


Anonymous said...

Good answer.