The media has fallen a little in the public eye of late, but traditionally has played some very important roles in the interaction of society with the government and the world at large. On a very basic level one might say that the media is responsible for getting the news to the public. Beyond that the media is extremely important for determining what is being thought about. Some say that though the media can’t control what you think (though this is of course arguable), they can control what you think about. Besides setting the agenda, however, the media has traditionally held the responsibility of acting as the government’s watchdog. As much as the government is designed with checks and balances designed to prevent excesses in any given area, a watchdog is necessary to report to the public on actions of the government which are deemed to be improper. Only by the media being vigilant and courageous in both discovering improper governmental activity and reporting that activity honestly to the public can the government be held accountable by the people who theoretically give it power.
One of the most important practices in journalism when it comes to the media’s role as governmental watchdog is the protection of confidential sources. The confidential source is essential to the flow of information regarding improper activity or misconduct. The confidential source is the official who feels that speaking out is necessary but fears political reprisals. The confidential source is the aide or employee who fears for his job. The confidential source is the whistleblower that speaks on condition of anonymity to keep the government honest and transparent.
Traditionally, prosecutors have not called journalists to testify about their sources. There has been, in general, respect for the anonymity of sources and the journalists’ duty to keep the sources confidential. Journalists have been known to go to jail to protect their sources and the integrity of the media’s role as watchdog. Legal precedent has varied, but ultimately has not established an absolute protection for journalists. Guidelines have included versions of a standard which requires that revealing a journalist’s source is essential for the case in question. Furthermore, journalists do reluctantly agree that an absolute protection could be harmful – journalists could generate scandals citing false ‘confidential’ sources.
Recently, in the Libby trial, numerous journalists were pressured into testifying regarding information received from a source that was at the time confidential. Without a guarantee of anonymity, the flow of confidential sources may slowly trickle to a halt, leaving the public at a loss regarding the potential misconduct of the government that represents our nation. A balance must be found that strongly protects a journalist’s right to refuse to testify to protect a source.