Are former sources protected when reporters cross over?

Third in a five-part series on the revolving door between journalism and government in New Jersey. Yesterday, Debbie Holtz wrote about the century-old practice of reporters who move to government.

Imagine sharing a confidence with a journalist during an "off the record" conversation that becomes part of a media story. Now think about how you'd feel when that reporter resigns and joins the staff of your political adversary.

The first question that pops into your head is: Will my promise of confidentiality still be honored by the reporter in his or her new position?

The jailing of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and freelance blogger Josh Wolf raised questions about the need for a federal shield law in order to protect the confidentiality of journalist-source relationships from government-seeking subpoenas.

The debate was silent on the question of whether sources are protected from inquisitive government or political employers once a reporter leaves the news organization.

So we put the question to some former reporters and media industry experts.

"A confidence should never be revealed. It's forever," stressed Dr. Donna Leff, a professor of journalism at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "It would definitely be unethical for a reporter to reveal their source. To me, it's unethical to even share an insider's perspective."

"Dealing with former sources is a little easier (than imposing post employment restrictions on reporters)", noted Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "You can build that protection into an ethics code. Information acquired under a promise of anonymity and exclusivity appropriately belongs to the news organization."

Are there any limits?

"When I was a Los Angeles Times reporter, there were things that I learned on the job. The general knowledge or insights that are in my head, I could take with me, but not specifics I may have learned," Rosenstiel explained.

"If I was a reporter and conducted an interview and then took my reporters notebook and went to another news organization and published the interview, my former employer would say: hey wait a minute that belongs to us. The same transfer scenario applies to this."

"Whatever was said to a reporter by a source was said in confidence and the reporter is still obligated to honor it…nothing changes just because you leave the job," said Dr. John Pavlik who chairs the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University.

But in practice, what happens?

New Jersey has one of the country's strongest media shield laws, according to a report published by the The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But most shield laws protect the confidential sources of the press and newsgathering organizations – not sources.

"You have to rely on the reporter's sense of morality," noted Rutgers journalism ethics professor Dr. Barbara Reed. "The premise of ‘do no harm' is still operative here.

"You hope that it would not happen. A reporter has to be able to look themselves in the mirror the next day."

"A confidence is a confidence," agreed Dr.Carl Hausman, chair of the Department of Journalism at Rowan University. "Even if I as the new hiring employer received some confidential information from a reporter, I would never trust that person again. I may be happy in the short term, but in the long run, I don't think I would keep promoting that person within the organization in the future."

"In our profession, words matter and you must live up to your word," Rosenstiel stressed.

Tomorrow: The state of the NJ news industry. Is the red ink at newspapers forcing reporters to jump ship?

Are former sources protected when reporters cross over?