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Journalism 101: Leaks & sourcing

Leaks are the lifeblood of journalists. For a long time, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and other empathetic citadels of power, we were conditioned to respond indignantly to questions about where our unsourced information comes from. Typically, we'd reply: "That's a matter of honor. We cannot answer that question and maintain our integrity."

That attitude didn't help our already anemic standing in the public eye. And it didn't take long, in this era of political free-for-all, unbridled spin and instant reaction, for journalists to become the subjects of the kinds of questions that we used to think we could ask with impunity, but were exempt from having to answer.

We have gone through a lot of self-examination in the last 30 years. Initially, much of it was confined to newsrooms and journals that most people don't read. It grew steadily, and once in a while we would make a big mistake that would generate more public scrutiny and discomforting questions. The Internet made the self-examination even more uncomfortable (because we can't set the terms on that public forum the way we can on our newscasts and in our newspapers and journals) and more intense (because of the Web's immediacy and pervasiveness).

Our reader's e-mail questioning the motivation of our source in the FEMA story brought all that to mind, and prompted me to recall a day back in the early 1980s when the heads of state, foreign ministers and finance secretaries of the world's industrialized nations were meeting in Williamsburg, Va. I was a young bureau reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A colleague who had about the same amount of experience as I did -- not much -- was assigned to cover a briefing at the summit meeting. Afterward, he called me, almost breathless, to describe it.

He said there were 500 or so reporters in a big auditorium. A well-known American cabinet official walked to the microphone in front of the room and began his briefing with the words: "This comes from a high administration official." My friend was amazed. "It was (So-and-So). But we can't use his name," he said. "There were five-HUNDRED reporters there." Nobody, he said, objected.

Now, this is really no big revelation. It's the way Washington works. Information is power, whether in the hands of a cabinet officer, a FEMA administrator, or someone who happens to have copies of interesting e-mails and wants a reporter to put them in the newspaper or broadcast them on television. More to the point, information is power in the hands of a reporter. The reporter's status depends on how much information he or she can gather. The less viewers and readers know about where that information comes from, the more powerful the reporter becomes... both inside and outside the newsroom.

The problem with that, is it can open the door for abuse in the hands of a reporter who is unskilled, uninformed, unscrupulous or suffers from any of a thousand other human shortcomings. In the old days, we journalists just said: "Trust us." Your answer, loud and clear, has been: "Trust, but verify." Through our mistakes and omissions, we've earned that skepticism.

Generally, in recent years, we've been better about examining ourselves on disclosing the motivation of sources. We still aren't good enough. The immediacy of the Internet has helped. It makes us ask the hard questions all day every day.

The Associated Press, the Washington Post, The New York Times and, I might add, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, all identified that cabinet secretary back in the 80s as "a high administration official" in their subsequent accounts. What was his motivation for remaining anonymous? Who knows? Maybe he didn't want to upstage his boss. Nobody, I recall, addressed that question in their reporting.   

And, by the way, if you think that we're cured of our hand-in-glove relationship with Washington, just look back a few paragraphs. More than 20 years later, I still felt compelled to refer to the guy, parenthetically, as "So-and-So." Once it's in your blood, it's tough to get it out.