Reporters Weigh the Value of Information Against the Threat of Legal Action

Olmsted, Dan
June 2005
Nieman Reports;Summer2005, Vol. 59 Issue 2, p29
This article worries that at a time when more aggressive snooping by the press is needed, the combination of diminished public support for the press and the threat of jail time for reporters involved with government leaks, is leading to a return to the 195O's style of reporting that might politely be called stenographic. Reduced to its essence, the ethic of all enterprising journalism is this: Do not commit a crime or a sin, at least not a mortal one, while pursuing information. But also do not think too much about whether the person giving you the information is committing one, either. Yet it appears that the public--American citizens who have the most to lose when journalism dulls its cutting edge--is all for dulling it. A ghastly poll of high school students recently found that nearly half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. When half of the upcoming population of adults in this nation think prior restraint by government on the press is just fine, we need to consider for a moment the implications of this finding. Will this next generation be willing, perhaps in the wake of future terrorist attacks, to dispense with freedom of the press altogether or limit it to stenography of official pronouncements? That is unlikely, of course, but no one should underestimate the ability of fear and sophisticated sound bites--otherwise known as propaganda--to shape the public mood.


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