IN a matter of days, the United States Supreme Court has issued
two separate rulings that open up the press to lawsuits from news
The upshot is that newspapers and magazines could conceivably
report fewer nuggets of sensitive or controversial news, but the
news that readers lose will also be some of the least reliable.
The Supreme Court ruled June 24 that a news source who gave
information to two Minnesota newspapers on the condition of
anonymity could sue them for breaking that promise.
The ruling came on the heels of a decision June 20 that interview
subjects could hold a journalist liable for fabricating remarks
presented inside quotation marks.
Many journalists admit to mixed feelings over the decisions.
They don't like to be told how to treat their sources by the
courts, and many who found no cause for concern in the first
decision last week see a foreboding intrusiveness in both of them
Yet the minimum standards of journalistic ethics set by the
court, some journalists concede, may benefit press credibility.
"Both cases strike me as having the same common thread," says
Scott Armstrong, an investigative reporter formerly with the
Washington Post and now teaching at American University. In both
cases, he says, the court applies minimum standards of reporting.
The practice of quoting people while keeping their identities
confidential is a widespread daily routine among reporters. For
newspapers to break these agreements is relatively rare. Reporters,
in fact, are occasionally jailed for refusing to divulge sources.
In the Minnesota case, a public relations man working for one
political candidate in 1982 gave newspaper reporters potentially
damaging information about another. Editors then decided to publish
his name as the source. He was fired by his advertising agency.
He sued for breach of an implied contract to keep his name
confidential, and he won. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the
victory. The US Supreme Court now returns the case to the state
court with the judgment that breach of contract is a legitimate
grounds for the suit.
The court's new decision adds the threat of expensive lawsuits
and monetary damages to the ethical commitment to protect sources.
The result could mean that editors will press reporters to cut down
on using anonymous sources, says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman
Foundation at Harvard University. …