Why should people talk to reporters? It’s a question that’s seldom raised among news people, which is too bad, because it’s an important one.


When you think about it, that question goes to the foundation of the entire edifice of a free press. And that foundation, at the moment, is shaky.


As a practical matter, no honest press, whatever its sense of mission and however solid its legal privileges, can outperform its sources. It can’t be any better, stronger, braver, more richly informed, or more dedicated to broad public purpose than the people who swallow their misgivings, return the phone call, step forward, and risk embarrassment and reprisal to talk to a reporter. Only in the rarest of circumstances is a reporter in the right place at the right time to observe and report a newsworthy event on personal authority. A fire is a fire—but still, the firefighter, the owner of the burning property and those who saw it start are all necessary for even a bare-bones story.


Yet the mythology of journalism seldom gives sources much of a thought. Instead, it extolls the sleuths, often their editors, sometimes even their publishers. But sources are really the whole ball game. Press freedom is nothing more than source freedom one step removed. The right of a news organization to tell what it learns is a hollow abstraction without the willingness of news sources to tell what they know.


Considering how indispensable sources are, it’s stunning how little affection they get and how flimsy the protections are that anybody claims for them.


For starters, take the current national security cases, the unprecedented Espionage Act and other prosecutions that the Obama administration is pursuing against whistleblowers who gave news reporters secret information about governmental improprieties and illegalities, leaks that have made headline news worldwide.


Nowadays, prosecutors in this country are for the most part quite happy to leave the press alone. They accept the idea that even if an informant belongs in prison for handing over secrets for publication, the media organizations that actually make the secrets public need not be answerable. And as a matter of prosecutorial politics, as long as government agents can identify the informants through wiretaps and snooping, they’d just as soon not hassle reporters.


That reflects a cozy little entente between government and big media: The government avoids stirring the rancor of editorialists and averts long-winded litigation full of talk about sacred rights, and the media buy themselves a “Keep Out of Jail” card at the cost of their sources’ safety.


Of course as a matter of moral logic—of pinning blame where it belongs—ignoring the press is absurd. If publishing something actually causes harm, those responsible should be called to account—whether they’re former NSA contractor Edward Snowden or The New York Times. Isn’t that what laws protecting national security are for?


But what’s more important is that if the publication is, on balance, a public benefit, nobody should be punished—neither the news organization nor its source.


But news sources have few allies nowadays. And, it’s not just in the national security realm. Once they were cultural heroes. Consider Hollywood. In The Insider in 1999, the character of Jeffrey Wigand was a brave and tortured man of principle determined to expose the lethal lies of cigarette makers. Ten years later, the title character in The Whistleblower was an object of ridicule.


The practical realities of serving as a source have changed too, for the worse. If you look at digital-era news practices, the overall environment for sources has deteriorated, and potential informants have better reason than ever to keep silent.


Consider the channels through which reporters and informants communicate. News organizations routinely post e-mail addresses for their reporters. But who believes an e-mail to a journalist is private, in the way a phone conversation would have been a decade ago? Can the reporter even safeguard his or her own electronic correspondence? How many proprietors would pay to fight an outside litigant’s attempt to see that correspondence—even if the litigation is nothing more than some ex-boss trying to enforce a cockamamie “non-disparagement” clause that the source was pressured to sign on his way out the company door?


And once the story is published, even if the source knew enough to speak carefully and his or her comments were accurately rendered and properly contextualized (no sure thing, that), what then?


Then the source’s contribution will be subjected to the boisterous give-and-take of the online multiverse, and his or her words, motives and integrity will be denounced or impugned, often by pseudonymous hacks, some of them undisclosed hirelings. None of that is fun.


To be sure, sympathy for sources can go too far. Many informants are essentially professional conduits, sophisticated in using and managing journalists. They may be in public relations themselves, and are seasoned pros who understand the risks. Or they’re officials who are in the game, who know how to negotiate terms beforehand, and who know that their continuing value to the reporter will usually guarantee they’ll be handled with consideration. And they are.


The source who’s imperiled isn’t the grizzled Special Ops commando, it’s the citizen soldier, the bedrock of the news system, the average Joe or Jane who has significant information the public should hear, but whose collaboration is a one-off thing; this person won’t ever be on any reporter’s speed dial. This is the source who steps from obscurity off a cliff into public notoriety, hoping the landing will be soft, maybe expecting that publicity will confer protection, and believing that speaking out is the right thing to do.


We don’t make it easy for them. They aren’t honored in the press ethics books, and the sociologists don’t bother studying how often they get hurt. The absence of empirical data about the experiences of different categories of news sources is remarkable. Journalists make judgments all the time on the basis of how they imagine their editorial decisions will affect the individuals whose collaboration they’ve relied on. Yet reporters know almost nothing about the aftermath, and neither the media nor the academy care enough to find out.


Yet heedless of that indifference and of the risks they run, sources continue to come forward. At some level, I suspect, they understand that talking to the press is what a responsible, thinking, caring person does. It’s an action that belongs among the irreducible elements of being a citizen, alongside the right to vote and the duty to give evidence in court. But I doubt you would find being a source covered in any civics book, and whatever training in the rudiments of citizenship our educational system offers almost certainly omits any mention of it at all.


Instead the media prefer to brandish the First Amendment as if it’s a private license issued for their benefit, ignoring the fact that without sources the press freedom clause is a dead letter.


That people talk to the press at all is something of a miracle, and it’s time sources began to get the respect and attention from the media that they deserve.


  • Edward Wasserman is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). He spent a decade as Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, and writes a regular column on the media distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune wire. It’s archived on his Website, “Unsocial Media”. This article is an expanded version of a column published in March 2014.