Ethics, Journalism, and Confidentiality

The New York Times is lauding its reporter Judith Miller as a hero, placing her in the same company with the instigators of the Boston Tea Party and the Underground Railroad, with barrier-breakers such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and oddly enough the more recent “hero” to the Times, Mark Felt. The paper feels that she has done a great civic duty by defying a federal court order to reveal her journalistic sources on the matter of the leaking of a former CIA agent’s identity.

The martyrdom that the Times wishes to bestow upon Ms. Miller has its source in the idea that journalism is purely a public service and is always, by nature, in the public interest. Closer to the truth is that journalism is first and foremost a business—a fact that does not lessen its importance to our great society. Like any other business that is important to a free republic, journalists must operate within the confines of the law. Miller’s hubris-filled “stand” is more a self-serving business decision than heroism. If she outs a source, she doesn’t get any more delicious scoops with which to sell papers.

Truth is seldom served a great interest by the use of “anonymous sources.” More often than not, people are led more into ignorance than knowledge from these nameless individuals because they’re left unsure of who to believe. Perhaps journalism would be better served by taking some cues from the world of academics, where the citation of sources is not only encouraged, but required.