Four in 10 journalists do not support using "confidential business or government documents without authorization"

By David Sirota , written on May 7, 2014

From The News Desk

If you are a regular reader of Pando, you know that we haven't held back from publishing newsworthy information - and you know we certainly haven’t refrained from publishing just because it might make powerful people angry, or just because we haven’t received official authorization from the businesses and governments we cover.

This shouldn’t be surprising, nor should it be rare. We are, after all, a journalism organization, and one of the most basic roles of journalism in this country is - or at least has been - using the rights granted under the First Amendment to be a check on government and corporate power.

The hedge in that last sentence was deliberate. A new survey from the Indiana University suggests things are fast changing in the news industry -- and not for the better.

The latest in 42 years worth of surveys of journalists, this one polled more than 1,000 reporters in the latter half of 2013. That timeframe is significant -- it was right when revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance were being published.

You might think that such a moment would have reconfirmed to an increasing number of working correspondents just how important investigative, adversarial reporting is in the 21st century. That such an historic time period in the annals of journalism would only strengthen journalists’ belief in the necessity of responsibly - but fearlessly - publishing information, even if the powers that be do not authorize such publication.

Instead, however, it seems the exact opposite has happened:


As IU researchers note, “the percentage of U.S. journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization,’ dropped significantly from 81.8 percent in 1992 to 57.7 percent in 2013.” Notably, there was only a small, 3 percent drop between 1992 and 2002, but then there was a 20 point drop in the last 10 years - an era which just so happen to coincide with a relentless war on whistleblowers, activists and journalists. The result: more than four in 10 working journalists are either ambivalent about - or outright oppose - the use documents without an explicit OK from corporate and/or government officials.

To really understand the implications of this shift, think back to almost every major investigative scoop you can remember or know of from history books. Then ask yourself: what would have happened to those stories had they only come to one of those 4 in 10 reporters who oppose the use of “confidential business or government documents without authorization”?

The answer, most likely, is that those stories would never have been published, and history might have unfolded in an entirely different way. Maybe "The Jungle" would never have been written, and then perhaps the most basic food safety standards would never have become law. Maybe Richard Nixon would have served two full terms. And maybe we would still know very little about just how much our own government is surveilling us.

Noting all this isn’t to downplay the understandable trepidation that come with doing real investigative journalism. Even when you aren’t doing epic stories like Watergate or the Snowden disclosures, if you are doing investigative work, you run the risk of legal threats, as we were recently reminded here at Pando.

You also run the risk of retribution, as the New York Times’ James Risen well knows. And you are also all but guaranteed to face the scorn of what has been called “state aligned” or “corporate aligned” journalists - ie. those reporters who predicate their work on echoing, amplifying and pleasing those in power. But all of those costs are an unavoidable part of the job, at least if you think “the job” is reporting information without fear or favor and in the public interest.

That definition, though, may not be so sacrosanct anymore because “the job” is now defined differently depending on where in the news ecosystem you may be. In much of that ecosystem, in fact, the risks and costs associated with adversarial journalism has made “the job” being a loyal state- and corporate-aligned journalist.

The fear of those risks and costs likely explains, for instance, why so many Washington reporters publicly slammed the NSA disclosures. It also explains why financial journalists so often defend Wall Street - in some cases, proudly insisting that key information about the financial industry should be kept secret from reporters, in other cases meddling to try to sabotage other journalists’ investigative reporting. And it may explain the new “explanatory journalism" brand, which so far appears intent on avoiding the risks and costs of breaking original investigative news. Instead, the new fad epitomized by Vox, FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot appears focused on merely analyzing and illustrating that news once someone else has borne those costs and risks.

These developments provide a reminder that fear begets compliance and complicity, and fear also shapes the reward system. Indeed, the path that avoids regular confrontation with power is often the far easier, less risky and more lucrative one in the news business. Thus, it has become the preferred path du jour, to the point where almost half of the news business does not support reporting things that the government and corporations don’t want reported.

Some of that, of course, may not be a personal choice by individual journalists. After all, the Indiana University survey shows an historic low in the number of journalists who say they have autonomy to select the kinds of stories they would like to report. Those figures come after Pew Research Center data already documented a penchant among reporters to self-censor content on behalf of their publications’ interests.

Taken together, it is entirely possible that journalists who may personally aim to do hard-hitting investigative work nonetheless refrain because they believe that would disobey their bosses. In this new era of politically active Citizen Kanes shaping their outlets’ news coverage, that fear factor will probably only grow more intense. And who knows - maybe all that pressure will mean the next IU survey 10 years from now shows a full-on majority of journalists saying news outlets shouldn’t publish without the express consent of the corporations and governments.

That would no doubt make the CEOs and politicians quite happy, but it would a tragedy for the rest of us.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando/NSFWCORP]