April 15, 2013

WU: A High Stakes Fight for Journalists

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You know it’s been a rough work week when the fruits of your labor are rewarded with a possible jail sentence rather than a paycheck. Fox reporter Jana Winter is currently caught on the prongs of the proverbial Morton’s fork as she faces the decision of whether to sully her reputation by divulging confidential sources or to stay mum and spend time in prison. Although her story has remained relatively subdued in major news outlets so far, Winter’s predicament should be a rallying point for the entire journalism community.

Winter landed the ultimate exclusive when she broke the story that alleged gunman James Holmes had mailed a notebook full of ominous drawings to his psychiatrist prior to the Aurora shooting last July. Now, judges and defense lawyers alike are demanding that Winter reveal the identities of the law enforcement officials she interviewed for the scoop, arguing that the information should never have been leaked in the first place. Winter remains stubbornly tight-lipped and is expressly adamant that succumbing to these pressures would put her career in jeopardy.

Winter is right: Not only would naming her sources damage her professionalism, it would also be a stinging blow to journalists everywhere. Much like a patient confides in his doctor knowing that medical confidentiality keeps his secrets safe; many sources are willing to provide journalists with critical information only with the assurance that their names won’t be cast under the spotlight of public scrutiny. If that trust is broken and sources can no longer count on the protection of anonymity, the job of journalists becomes markedly more difficult. Oftentimes, dredging out sensitive information is controversial but necessary for the public interest. If sources have to endure the consequences of reader backlash in the wake of such stories, they are liable to keep a tighter lid on important information.

The issue also speaks to the amount of control that government institutions should have to direct the movement of the news media. Freedom of the press has been consistently recognized as a key pillar of democratic society in order to hold powerful elites accountable. The line that draws a clean wall of separation between the government and the press becomes blurred if officials can put a muffler on stories that journalists release to the public.

Winter’s detractors argue that publicizing the information about Holmes’s notebook infringes on the defendant’s right to a fair trial, and they want her anonymous sources to be held responsible. This argument, however, merely demands that the barn door be closed once the horse has already bolted. And in this case, shutting that door would simultaneously close off channels to private sources of information that populate the news.

A number of authors suspect that the low-profile nature of Winter’s crusade has something to do with the fact that her employer is Fox News. But this is not a time to play petty politics. Regardless of Winter’s background, journalists should be willing to go to bat for a fellow reporter who is fighting to preserve a key tenet of their profession. In the past, journalists have provided a voice for overlooked members of their community; now it’s time for them to make some noise on behalf of one of their own.

Joyce Wu is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jw637@cornell.edu. Catchy Sound Bite appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Joyce Wu