Is Reporter-Source Confidentiality More Important Than National Security?

by Sam D. on Septembre 12, 2016 - 9:22pm

In the National Post article "Pundit War: Should Journalists Be Forced to Divulge Information about Their Sources?” four members of the Post’s staff debate about a recently brought up ethical issue concerning a reporters refusal to divulge information pertinent to a police investigation related to national security. The reporter was court ordered to release transcripts of an instant messaging conversation between him and a suspected terrorist but refused to cooperate based on his “right” to protect his source due to the “freedom of the press”.

The two staff members in favour of the reporter withholding the information began their argument by stating that the police force should not turn journalists into a civilian investigative force. Here the staff members are addressing the ethical principle that people should not be used as a means to an end. They then argue that the “freedom of the press” prevents tyrannical governments by allowing the news media to inform the public about the government’s affairs and should thus have some legal protections to keep “the government from walking all over” them. We can see here that some of these staff members’ values are accountability and collective responsibility. They also state the differences between legal obligations and ethical obligations and how “bad laws create bad ethics”. They add that someone has to make a decision based on ethics before they make one based on laws. This demonstrates the principle that people should always act in accordance to their own best interest. They also mention that if journalists wish to have the trust of all their sources, they “can’t pick and choose” which they want to protect and which they don’t. This shows that these staff members also value loyalty.

The opposing staff members argue that journalists have no more rights to withhold information that any other citizen would have to relinquish, which shows that these two staff members value equality of condition and fairness. They mention that if someone chooses to break the law because they believe that it is the most ethical course of action, then they should expect and accept the consequences of their actions such as going to jail, as Martin Luther King Jr. did. We can see here that these staff members also value integrity. They add that going to jail would allow for the individuals that chose to break the law based on their ethics, to gain the public support needed to bring upon a change in the law that they believe unethical because many will see them as being unjustly punished. This shows us that these staff members value justice as well. The identities of the sources are also argued to have a deciding factor in whether they should be protected, such as a “whistle-blower over political corruption” being protected over a suspected terrorist, which tells us that these staff members value accountability as well. They also state that there is already a solution in the legal system to the issue of protecting the press’ right to investigate the government; “the courts decide”, allowing for a sort of “check on the power of the state”.

In my opinion, national security prevails over journalists’ “right” to withhold information to protect their sources. I value security over individual freedom, especially when it acts for the greater good. I also value fairness, integrity and justice more than self-interest and blind loyalty.


"Our 'Right' To Protect You; Four National Post columnists debate a recent court ruling ordering a reporter to co-operate with the police." National Post, Don Mills, Ont., 2016.