Jail or no jail

Let’s pretend for a moment I’ve written a groundbreaking, important story instead of the usual garbage I write about politics and basketball.  In this bit of prose, I manage to report actual news, and CNN sends me an email asking if they can run my story.  I tell them no because I hate CNN so then Yahoo! calls me and asks the same thing and I tell them go for it.  In the first day, my story gets 300,000 views.  The next day, it’s up to a million and Good Morning America picks it up where another 10 million people view it.  By now, this news is legitimate, mainstream media.

In this hypothetical story, I’ve been emailing back and forth with an anonymous source who has provided me insight regarding this story.  I trust the source, and they trust me too, so they’ve asked to not be identified in the story.  I’ve promised this source I would do my very best to maintain their anonymity, but nothing is absolute.

The FBI gets word of my story, and they come knocking at my door.  They want to know who my anonymous source is, because this person may have information pertinent to this case.  I refuse to disclose the name of my source.

Two weeks later, a subpoena is in my mailbox.  The FBI is commanding I turn over any information I have about this source, including emails, notes, and the source’s name.  I’ve also been compelled to appear in court.  I hire a lawyer.

The lawyer tells me I have two choices:  I cooperate fully, turn over any material, including the source’s name, and I’m good to go.  Or, I refuse to burn my source, in which case I will be held in contempt of court, and likely serve some jail time.  If anything regarding this case goes to trial, I can be held for the duration.

What should I do?

This hypothetical scenario is a very real ethical and professional conundrum faced by journalists all the time.  Judith Miller, a former reporter for the New York Times, went to jail for over 80 days for refusing to disclose a source.  These things happen.  Remember, this is a lose-lose scenario.  Let’s say you pick door number one:  you burn the source, cut a deal, and avoid jail time.  You have just effectively lied to a person who trusted you, broke one of the most important ethical rules of journalism, and possibly jeopardized the rest of your career, as most people will be hesitant to talk to someone who ratted a source to save themselves.  What’s behind door number two?  You refuse to disclose the source and the judge sentences you to an indefinite jail sentence, ending whenever the trial concludes, possibly months from now.  But you get to serve that jail sentence with your head held high, knowing you stuck it to the man, and defended journalistic principles.  You might even consider yourself a hero.

I was asked this same question a few weeks ago in class, if I would take a jail sentence to protect a source.  Everyone in the room immediately said “yes, absolutely, I would go to jail every single time to protect a source,” which is fine, but I don’t they considered both sides.

Yes, protecting your source means you’ve acted with journalistic integrity.  But have you?  What if your source had pertinent, important knowledge not only relevant to a case, but imperative to its conclusion?  By protecting this source, you have effectively compromised the justice system by stalling proceedings, and you’ve done it by being an indirect, de facto obstruction of justice.

I don’t mean to suggest burning the source is the right thing to do.  I’ve pondered this question almost everyday since my professor first asked it.  For me, it’s almost impossible to answer.  I’ll leave that up to you.


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