By Zachary Garner, SPJ Region 3 intern and freelance journalist
On Monday, June 5, NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner was charged with leaking a highly classified report to the American press. Winner is employed at a government facility near Augusta, Georgia. The document released to the press concerned a potential Russian cyber-attack and alleged tampering in the 2017 United States Presidential race.
Was this document released to help aid the American people and provide evidence of the Russian’s hacking into U.S. elections? Or was this information used to misappropriate an individual’s ideals further?
This question isn’t easy to answer.
People have entrusted the press to inform and provide them with unadulterated and accurate information. It is part of the public trust between journalists and the citizens of this nation. They deserve to know the truth. The faith placed in the free press to provide honest, straightforward information is what separates audience engagement. It’s what makes the audience chose a source like the New York Times over Mike in accounting.
Yet this trust is a two-way street.
While we, as journalists, would like to think that we are capable of gathering any and all the information the people need at a moment’s notice, that’s not quite the case. We rely on sources giving us some information that might lead to the facts — telling us exactly what happened. A story is only as good as its sources.
Lois Norder, investigative editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said there is a certain risk when someone takes when they decide to leak information. They are looking for a news organization they know they can trust.
“(They) want to know you’ll get results,” said Norder.
As time goes on, the involvement of public citizens, employees and government officials is becoming more significant in both the discovery and pursuit of important news stories. Ignoring reporters’ questions, non-answers, and public relations cover-ups might be compelling journalists to use anonymous sources or leaks to assist in doing their jobs.
SPJ National President Lynn Walsh said that we are, unfortunately, seeing fewer and fewer public agents speak openly to the press or on the record, for that matter.
Therefore, journalists might need to rely more on leaks.
Leaking, whether it is through snail mail or an online portal (like secure drop — hyperlink), is what keeps the lights on for journalists. If journalists are kept in the dark, everyone is moving more blindly. Those brave enough to supply information to the press are entrusting them to do the right think with that information.
Obtaining a leak provides an opportunity for a more honest insight into the inner workings of a community, a group or administration. It can be a red flag for things to come or might shed a light on current misdeeds. Or it could be a dead end.
“People don’t understand most of how the government works,” said SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky. “What they do understand is crazy.”
He said leaks can provide journalists with a string to pull on — a bread crumb trail to follow. Koretzky also said that nine out of 10 leaks that end up on his desk don’t lead to
anything serious — there’s no story to pursue.
Were Wikileaks, Watergate or Reality Winner the one out of 10? Maybe. Bread crumbs, even the smallest of pieces, have the capacity to lead us to the witch’s house. The witch, in this case, might be a national scandal.
Watch for more articles on anonymous sources and leaking in upcoming articles by Zach Garner on SizingUpTheSouth.com.
Zachary Garner is freelance journalist who recently graduated from Washington State University where he studied Journalism and Media Production. firstname.lastname@example.org.