NEWS SOURCES: Questions & Issues

July 23, 2011

Three brief student readings (with suggestions for discussion) focus on the use of unnamed and potentially unreliable sources and journalists' need to protect sources.

The three student readings below, and accompanying suggestions for discussion, focus on news sources and the problems they can pose for journalists and the public. Reading 1 asks students to consider two false reports on Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction that came from Iraqi defectors. Reading 2 provides a summary of the CIA leak case in which government officials were the source of information. Reading 3 discusses the need journalists sometimes have to protect their sources—and the problems that can result.


Reading 1:

Defectors as Sources

"Jenna isn't going to the party." "Why not?" "Alex told me she has to take care of her brother."

"Did you hear?" "What?" We're going to have an extra day of school in June because of the snowstorm." "Oh, no!" "Yes. I heard some teachers talking about it."

Every day we get information from other people. Often we don't ask where they got their information from. Or if we do, we may not follow up with questions about its reliability. Rumors fly. Soon a half dozen of Jenna's friends think she can't go to the party, and half the kids in school think they're in for an extra school day. Maybe the information is correct. But maybe it's only partly correct or even totally inaccurate.

Journalists have to deal with this problem because often the information they report is not something they know about first-hand. They get it from sources—they question a witness about a crime, an official about a government action, a victim about an earthquake. But can the journalist be sure about the accuracy of what he or she has learned? Consider the following:

October 26, 2001: A page one article in the New York Times, citing Iraqi defectors as its source, described "a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced."

December 20, 2001: A page one interview in the New York Times quoted a defector from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government who said he "worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago."

Class exercise

After students have finished Reading 1, ask them to imagine themselves as reporters for each of the two articles described in the reading. Then ask them to write the two or three best questions they can think of that they need to answer about their sources of information for each of the two articles. When they have completed their questions, divide the class into groups of four to six students to read their questions to one another. Ask each group to select the two questions they regard as best, and to name a reporter to read them to the whole class.

As reporters read the group's questions, write them without comment on the chalkboard. Then have the class examine each for clarity and pertinence. (For a detailed discussion of question analysis, see the doubting game section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," which is available on this website.) Finally, discuss with students how a reporter might answer their best questions and what problems he or she might face in doing so.

Additional discussion questions

1. "Defectors" were the sources for these New York Times reports. Why might a defector from the Saddam Hussein government have been a good source about terrorist activity and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? For what reasons might a defector have been untrustworthy?

2. Imagine you are a Times reporter writing one of these articles. Imagine also that you have no way of verifying the information from the defectors. For each article, write a sentence or two to include in your story about the reliability of the information you are reporting.

3. Judith Miller wrote a number of articles for the Times about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the war began. She is the author of the December 20, 2001, article described in Reading 1. Several years later, Miller commented on this and other stories she had written during this period. She said that she "got it totally wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." (10/16/05) What do you think about her explanation?

To conclude the discussion, you might inform the class, if this information has not already come up, that the defectors' and other such reports in the period before the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned out to be false. The Times apologized for them two years later.


Reading 2:

Government Officials as Sources

In early 2002, the CIA asked Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to African countries, to go to Niger to investigate reports that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from Niger for use in nuclear bombs. Wilson reported back that it was "highly doubtful" that these reports were true. But during the following year President Bush and Vice President Cheney repeatedly stated publicly that Iraq had an active and dangerous nuclear weapons program.

Wilson decided to go public with his view that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." ( New York Times, 7/6/03)

A week later Robert Novak, a conservative syndicated columnist and, until recently, a commentator on CNN, wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is "an agency [CIA] operative on weapons of mass destruction." He also wrote, "Two senior Bush administration officials told me his [Wilson's] wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger."

Time magazine (and other media outlets) suggested that the Bush administration had "declared war" on Wilson for suggesting its claims about Iraq's nuclear weapons program were exaggerated and "twisted."

Leaks about CIA agent Plame to other reporters—Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, Judith Miller of the New York Times —became a public scandal during the next year. One major source eventually became known: Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. Libby was indicted for obstructing justice by lying to a grand jury about, among other things, his informing one or more reporters about Plame's relationship with Wilson.

Questions remained. Who were the "two senior Bush administration officials" that Novak cited? Was one of them Libby?

For more than two years, US Justice Department Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has been investigating and trying to answer these and related questions

For discussion

1. "Editors...want their reporters to get access to top officials, in the hope of finding information that their competition doesn't have. Especially in the small world of foreign policy and national security, the reporters and columnists for leading news organizations have close, confidential relations with officials. This is no less the case today than it was in the Clinton Administration... it's just that a different set of journalists have the better access." (Nicholas Lemann, "Telling Secrets," New Yorker, 11/7/05)

Why do you think "a different set of journalists have a better access"? What might this say about the choice of journalists to whom information on the Plame/Wilson case was leaked?

2. Why might a reporter seek a confidential connection to a top official? Why might such an official be willing to give it? What are the potential dangers for the reporter? For the official?

3. In connection with the Plame/Wilson case, can you think of any other motivations for official leaks than the one suggested by Time magazine?


Reading 3:

Protecting Sources

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's inquiry into security leaks led to interviews with reporters who had spoken to Bush administration officials before Robert Novak published his column outing Valerie Plame. Among them was New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had learned about Valerie Plame Wilson from Lewis Libby (the vice president's chief of staff). At his request, Miller promised him anonymity.

When Miller was questioned by Fitzgerald before a grand jury, she refused to reveal Libby as the source of her information about Plame and was taken to court. Backed by the Times, Miller took her case as far as the Supreme Court and lost. Exactly two years after the Wilson article appeared in the Times, a federal judge ordered her jailed for "defying the law" by refusing to identify the source of her confidential information.

Miller told the judge, "If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press."

The New York Times editorialized, "The point of this struggle is to make sure that people with critical information can feel confident that if they speak to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, their identities will be protected... The most important articles tend to be the ones that upset people in high places, and many could not be reported if those who risked their jobs or even their liberty to talk to a reporter knew that they might be identified the next day. In the larger sense, revealing government wrongdoing advances the rule of law, especially at a time of increased government secrecy.

"It is for these reasons that most states have shield laws that protect reporters' rights to conceal their sources. Those laws need to be reviewed and strengthened, even as members of Congress continue to work to pass a federal shield law." ( New York Times, 7/7/05)

After the grand jury issued indictments of Libby, Fitzgerald explained that he had been very reluctant to insist on Judith Miller's revealing what she knew and the source of her information. He had not wanted to make a First Amendment case out of her refusal to name her source. But, he said, the situation was "extraordinary," because Miller had information about a crime. Protecting her source, in this case and in the special counsel's judgment, meant protecting a criminal and criminal acts.

Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail, until she received what she said was a clear statement from Libby permitting her to reveal him as her source. She then revealed Libby's identity and agreed to testify before a grand jury about her interviews with him.

Discussion in pairs

Was Judith Miller right to conceal the source of her information from the special counsel and a grand jury investigating a crime (the outing of a CIA agent)? Why or why not?

Ask students to pair up in twos facing each other for a preliminary expression of their views on the Miller case. Give each student one to two minutes to respond to the question. Then have the other partner speak for one to two minutes. Remind students that when they are in the role of listener, their goal is to focus their complete attention on the speaker and listen in silence. After each has had an opportunity to speak, have students, in turn, paraphrase their partner's thoughts to the satisfaction of the partner.

Before having a general class discussion on the Miller case, process the students' experiences with paraphrasing. What is the value of paraphrasing? Did students experience any problems in paraphrasing? If so, how might they be solved?

For possible additional discussion

1. Consider the opposing viewpoints represented by the New York Times editorial and Fitzgerald's explanation of why he pressed Miller for her information. What are the strengths of each position? The weaknesses?
2. Consider Miller's viewpoint. What are its strengths? Its weaknesses?
3. Now that students have examined the Miller case from various angles, what conclusions do they reach about her jailing?

For further student or class inquiry

1. All media news outlets rely on information from official sources. And sometimes officials refuse to provide a piece of information unless reporters agree not to name them as the source. Study the sources on some controversial issue being reported in the media. Are these sources identified? How? If not, what explanation, if any, does the reporter give for not identifying the source? What reasons might there be for a source to be unreliable or biased? Has there been an effort to check this source? How can you tell?

2. Forty-nine states (all but Wyoming) have shield laws enabling reporters to protect their sources. What are the details of the law in your state? Under what circumstances is the shield law applicable? How does the law deal with a state's potential need to have information about a crime that a reporter's source might know about? Note: These state shield laws do not apply in federal investigations.

3. There is no federal shield law. Should there be one? Under what circumstances?
Why or why not?

4. On December 16, 2005, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau cited anonymous government officials for their report that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap American citizens. The president said that this disclosure was a "shameful act" that damaged US security. The Department of Justice has begun an investigation and will undoubtedly want to interview Risen and Lichtblau. Should these reporters testify? Should they be jailed if they refuse?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: