Journalistic Ethics


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: This week, Judith Miller, a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES, went to jail rather than reveal to a federal grand jury the names of sources she had promised to keep confidential. We want to explore the moral arguments of that case with Deborah Potter, a former network news correspondent who now teaches newsroom ethics.

Deborah, welcome. What did the judge want Judith Miller to do and why?


Judith Miller

DEBORAH POTTER (Executive Director, NewsLab): Well, the judge wanted Judith Miller to testify before a federal grand jury about some reporting she had done on who might have leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent. That’s a federal crime — leaking the name.

ABERNETHY: If that in fact happened.

Ms. POTTER: If it did, and we don’t know, because Judith Miller never wrote anything about this story.

ABERNETHY: And why did she say, “No, I’ll go to jail rather than do that”?

Ms. POTTER: She agreed to go to jail rather than testify because she believes it’s important to protect her source — a source whom she promised to keep confidential. In essence, she’s going to jail rather than break her promise.

ABERNETHY: But, isn’t it more than just her word to this source? Isn’t it part of a larger constitutional question about the rights and the duties of the press?

Ms. POTTER: Well, journalists believe they need the right to promise confidentiality to a source in order to get at information that is important to the public, of exceeding interest to the public. It shouldn’t be done — this kind of promising of confidentiality — just on an everyday, willy-nilly basis. But when really important information is at stake, journalists think they should be able to make a promise and keep that promise.


ABERNETHY: And there is no so-called “shield law” that protects Miller in this case?

Ms. POTTER: No, there isn’t. There are 31 states that have sort of absolute protection for journalists in situations like this on state law, but no federal shield.

ABERNETHY: So what it comes down to then, again, is on the one hand, a judge’s order and obeying the law, not being above the law, and on the other hand, keeping your word?

Ms. POTTER: Yes, and there is always a conflict, I think, for journalists and for others in similar situations, as to whether the public good is better served by maintaining the confidentiality of your source and providing that information that you learned to the public or actually going forward and testifying in a court of law.

ABERNETHY: And it’s an individual choice all the way how you balance this?

Ms. POTTER: It is, and in this case, I think Judith Miller has decided as an act of conscience that she wants to take the stand she’s taken.

ABERNETHY: Deborah Potter, many thanks.