A Question Of Confidential Sources

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - March 22, 2006
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Home-schooled Hawaii speech-and-debate students will do their best this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Schofield Barracks.

It’s the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA) regional tournament. The NCFCA says it helps young people “address life issues from a Biblical world view in a manner that glorifies God.”

A “Biblical world view” is way, way off my radar, but the debate topic is dear to my heart.

The media’s right to confidential sources vs. the public’s right to know.

I’ve used confidential sources for 50 years as a reporter and columnist. I’ve never revealed a confidential source. I’ve occasionally argued against confidential sourcing.

The reality of the reporting business is that most of our tips come from government and business insiders (citizen wiretapping, the Philip Morris case) who wouldn’t do so without a guarantee of confidentiality.

You can argue that the public has a right to know the source of the information as well as the information itself, but you also know the tradeoff - the information would dry up.

I’ve tended to favor a safeguard system in which a high editor must know the source and make the ultimate decision on using the information sourceless.

The trouble with that is local television news. It’s usual for a local newscast producer - the editor - to be much less experienced than the reporters. So that’s moving the decision down a notch rather than up.

Many years ago a local TV reporter did a story using an anonymous source who identified a Big Island citizen as the godfather of organized crime.

During a lawsuit challenging his facts, the reporter (no longer in the biz) said he got his information from a police officer he would not identify. You can’t accuse a person of felony criminal activity and hide your source - not even if your editor knows your source. In that case, the editor did not.

Frankly, we would be ill-served by revoking confidentiality.

The key is use of good judgment. Does the info appear to be bona fide? Is the source reliable and meet all your tests for integrity? Is the info essential to the public interest? Where will you stand if somebody sues?

I’ve done some pretty heady stories based on confidential sources - most memorable here on shenanigans within the local Veterans Administration and the haole-boy admissions hassle within Kamehameha Schools. Nobody sued. Nobody challenged my facts.

I’d go to jail forever rather than burn a source. No question about that. The only valuables I have are my name and my word of honor.

Ah, but courts have found a new weapon. They fine the reporter’s publisher. I would go to jail forever, but MidWeek might crumble under a devastating fine. How about $5,000 per day? It’s rhetorical, and so I don’t have to put publisher Ron Nagasawa on the spot here, but I’d be curious how many such days might pass before Ron or his superiors tossed me to the wolves.

And once your employer tosses you, well, then your house, your IRA, your bank account - they’re all fair game.

I’m OK with incarceration, but not with putting total poverty upon my wife.

Anyway, I do hope the local NCFCA will write up a summary of the preponderance of thought at this debate and mail it to every Honolulu newspaper editor and TV news director.

We journalists don’t (I hope) live in pressure-sealed chambers designed to keep others’ opinions from touching us.

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