Court Broadens Sources' Defense against Press Breaking Anonymity Pledge Can Be Breach of Contract; Fabricating Quotes Grounds for Libel

Article excerpt

IN a matter of days, the United States Supreme Court has issued two separate rulings that open up the press to lawsuits from news sources.

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 together.

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. …


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