Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach

By Christopher Meyers | Go to book overview

18
Respecting Sources’
Confidentiality: Critical but
Not Absolute

Aaron Quinn

Confidential sourcing has proven to be an effective tool for investigative journalism, particularly when highly secretive or high-public-impact information is at stake and there are too few transparent sources to adequately inform a news story. Nonetheless, many journalists choose to use confidential sources sparingly or not at all because the potential harms in using confidential sources, in their view, outweigh their potential benefits. This chapter will explore three key facets of confidential sourcing in an effort to provide a practical model of ethical deliberation for the use of confidential sources.

First, I will argue that there are justifications for the use of confidential sources in journalism. Second, I will discuss what conditions are necessary for the use of confidential sources, what procedures should be in place to use them best, and why in these cases confidential sourcing is at least morally permissible, if not morally obligatory. Finally, contrary to the journalistic convention that once a confidential agreement is made, it cannot be broken, I will argue for why journalists are at least permitted—even, at times, obligated—to break confidential agreements. Each of these arguments underlies a larger question that has been debated for several decades: Should journalists have a federal shield law protecting their confidential agreements?


Confidentiality as a Professional Tool

Confidential agreements are not only crucial for journalists but are a hallmark of established professions such as medicine and law. In each occupation, confidentiality is invoked to increase the flow of information available to at least one party. In journalism, confidential sourcing is crucial for maintaining a free flow

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