October 23, 2006

Journalists and the Jail Cell

No. of Journalists locked up
1984-1989 4
1990-1994 10
1995-1999 2
2000-2006 5

More than three decades ago, millions of Americans got a primer on the issue of confidential sources when a TV journalist named Mary Richards was incarcerated for refusing to identify one of her sources. That episode of the hit 70’s sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” won an Emmy Award.

But outside of Hollywood, the prospect of journalists facing jail time for refusing to identify a confidential source is no laughing matter. The current looming showdown involves San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who last month were sentenced to prison—pending appeals—for refusing to reveal who leaked grand jury testimony about the BALCO steroid investigation. The two journalists, who also wrote “Game of Shadows,” have won a number of journalistic honors for their coverage. (It was also reported this week that the Chronicle agreed to a pay a fine, also pending an appeal, after its unwillingness to help identify the reporters’ sources.)

Even though a reporter going to jail remains a rarity, it does happen. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 21 journalists/writers have spent time locked up—some of it very brief—in the past 22 years for not disclosing sources or information. That does not include two notable cases from the 70’s—before the group began tracking the issue—in which New York Times reporter Myron Farber and Los Angeles Herald-Examiner staffer William Farr both spent more than a month in jail.

One episode that generated intense interest involved New York Times reporter Judith Miller (now an ex-Times reporter), who spent 85 days behind bars last year after initially refusing to identify her sources, including vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in the investigation of who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Various surveys have indicated that the public is generally wary and skeptical about the use of confidential sources, but understands the need for them under certain circumstances. A 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that 52% of the respondents thought it was too risky to use confidential sources because of the potential for inaccurate reporting. But 76% agreed that sometimes, if it's the only method for obtaining information, the use of such sources could be justified. That apparently wasn't the case in the Miller episode, however, according to a 2005 University of Connecticut poll which found that 57% of the public approved of the court ruling that tried to force her to reveal her sources.

The fate of the two BALCO reporters could prove to be the next big test case of public opinion on the issue.