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Just how far would you go to protect a source?

Just how far would you go to protect a source?

Picture of William Heisel

Let’s say you are pursuing an investigative story about addictive drugs and what combination of them can lead to an accidental overdose.

Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s as relevant today as it has been every decade since the 1980s.

In 1985, freelance journalist Christopher Van Ness went to jail to protect a source while he was pursuing a story about a drug overdose: the death of comedic actor John Belushi. As The New York Times reported at the time:

Prosecutors said the writer, Christopher Van Ness, refused to surrender the tape, in which Cathy Evelyn Smith reportedly confessed giving Mr. Belushi more than 20 drug injections in the 24 hours before his death on March 5, 1982, or to answer questions about the April 1982 telephone interview with Miss Smith from Toronto.

Van Ness remains just one of a handful of reporters in the United States ever to serve time for protecting a source. When one sees that kind of dedication to the discipline of journalism and to the critical role journalists play in our civil society, it can be inspiring.

And daunting.

What should a reporter be expected to do to protect a source? To answer that, it’s important to ask yourself a series of questions.

The first one is something you can ask before you even start reporting in earnest: What can you do to make sure you’re not in a position where a source being outed is an option?

The single-minded, truth-obsessed journalist pursuing that one person who reveals everything in the final scene runs through books, films, and series going back nearly as long as the reporting craft. But most reporting efforts would not make good movies. And, if you actually set out to report your story in a not-ready-for-prime-time way, you will likely never end up being told by a judge that you will have to serve time for not revealing that one name. Here are three basic things you should do, and just to make them more appealing, each one has been inspired by a movie.

1) “The Name of the Rose” — The 1986 Jean-Jacques Annaud thriller was set at a time (the year 1327) when the only way to make a copy of something was to do so by hand. You can feel the intensity in the room as row upon row of monks make copies of and illustrate texts. Lucky for you, the options for copying and archiving these days are so vast, so less time intensive, and so cheap! So document your story using as many ways as possible. If there is a court record, make copies of the court files. Go to the attorneys involved in the court case and make copies of key elements of their files, too. If there are patients involved, ask them to get copies of their hospital records. If there are regulatory agencies involved, get copies of those records. Go online and download or make PDFs of everything you can find because such records may disappear at an inconvenient time.

2) “Rashomon” — The 1950 Akira Kurosawa film famously told one story from multiple angles. Behind the scenes, you should do the same thing. Talk to everyone. Record the interviews. If you find out something interesting from Source A, ask Source B about it, too. And Source C. Your best facts are those that can be documented by a PDF and by a person.

3) “The Insider” — In Michael Mann’s 1999 film, Al Pacino plays the producer Lowell Bergman who works mightily to persuade whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to come clean with what he knows about the tobacco industry’s attempts to obscure the health impacts of smoking. (He did come clean, and, after a lot of off-camera drama, 60 Minutes finally aired the story.) Bring out your inner Pacino when you are working with a source. If your story is solid, and what they are telling you is solid, then they should go on the record. It’s the best way to make sure your story makes the impact it deserves and withstands scrutiny. It is always easier to believe a named source than an unnamed source, and the very fact of being named makes it more likely that the source is going to provide you the truth you need to go out into the world with your story. It’s always easier to shade or color the facts — not to mention outright lie — if you think your name will never be associated with what you said. (Witness any comment section on any news media site. Would those people write like that if they knew their mother would see inside their dark little brains?)

For stories where it seems at first that you are relying on a key insider who could be hurt if they were to be named in your piece, you may have other options. But to answer the question in the headline, if you ultimately are threatened with jail time by a judge or government agency trying to force you to turn over your notes, the names of your sources or anything else, you owe it to yourself and to the proud tradition of journalism to fight the case as hard as you can, even if it means spending time in jail.

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