September 22, 2006

Jail Time for Chronicle Reporters Is Bad Practice

It's been a long-held tenet of the journalism field that anonymous sources were to be protected by the reporters who worked with them, and that anonymous sources needed to trust their identities would be safe, even under threat of legal action. This high-scale drama has played itself out time and again as ink stained wretches have pledged they would rather go to jail than give up a source. In most cases, it can be said the threat of going behind bars is a scare tactic that has little chance of happening.

In the last year, a few notable cases have highlighted this struggle - from the Valerie Plame scandal, where Robert Novak refused to give up a confidential source, but was not threatened with being in the pokey, but Judith Miller was, to the ever-unfolding story at HP, where reporters' phone records were surreptitiously obtained. Now,  Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle have been jailed for refusing to testify on who leaked grand jury testimony around the Barry Bonds BALCO steroid scandal, which formed the basis for a series of high-profile articles, and later a book.

Regardless of how I feel about Barry Bonds and his sullying of the game of baseball through reliance on pharmaceuticals, it is my belief that reporters serve a critical role and that they should be able to utilize anonymous sources - so long as they work with their editor and can ascertain the data being reported is factual. If reporters either believe that the company they are reporting on (like HP) or the government (see Bush, George) can gain access to their phone records, or that they could later face jail time for working with anonymous sources, and this impacts their willingness to break stories and tell the truth, then the medium is in very serious trouble.

Instead of throwing Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada in prison, they should be applauded for getting the truth out there, and bringing to light one of the biggest sports stories of a generation - one that otherwise might not have had the awareness, and certainly not the detail, that this does. I sincerely hope that cooler heads prevail and recognize that they were serving a higher purpose - one that needs to be respected.

Related Links:

ESPN: Reporters who refused to reveal BALCO leak get prison

ESPN: Outcome for Chronicle reporters means we all lose

Listening to ''Sibeling'', by Depeche Mode (Play Count: 11)

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