News next: a journalism teacher's diary

April 17, 2010

Shh! it’s a secret

Whether basing a story on anonymous sources makes the story less credible is a subject of intense debate among news gatherers and news consumers.

People who provide information on condition that they won’t be identified may act out of malice, and may be seeking to mislead reporters or to tarnish the reputation of an enemy. The notorious case in which Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff sought to blunt criticism of the Bush Administration by leaking the identity of a CIA agent is a case in point.

There’s no doubt, though, that in some cases sources risk their livelihood or even their freedom by revealing confidential or secret information they believe the public should know.

A recent case of that kind illustrates both the kinds of agreements reporters make to gain access to information and the risks sources take to provide it.

On April 14, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Thomas Drake, an employee of the National Security Agency, and accused him of passing classified information to The Baltimore Sun. (Because The Sun was not accused of wrongdoing, the reporter, Siobhan Gorman, was identified by prosecutors only as “Reporter A.”)

The Sun ran a series of articles that raised questions about NSA programs. One began

Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency’s drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency’s ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say.

Another raised the likelihood that an electrical outage would paralyze the agency.

Here’s the deal Gorman made with Drake, according to the indictment: (more…)

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