Free press demands confidentiality

Part of a reporter’s job is to investigate issues and stories, and to inform the public about the issues. To get some of these stories, reporters sometimes need to protect the identity of their sources.

Possibly the most well-known confidential source is “Deep Throat,” or W. Mark Felt, of Watergate fame. If Bob Woodward hadn’t agreed to protect Felt’s identity, it’s quite possible that the story wouldn’t have been written and that one of the biggest cover-ups in history wouldn’t have been uncovered.

But someone always wants the reporters to reveal their confidential sources.

What happens to those reporters who don’t?

They get jailed.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle who helped uncover the steroid scandal involving Major League Baseball and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, could be sent to prison for 12 months for refusing to reveal how they obtained the information.

A federal judge ordered them to jail until they will agree to testify. If jailed, they could remain there until the current grand jury term expires, as late as October 2007.

Prosecutors are investigating possible perjury and obstruction of justice by government officials, defendants in the BALCO case and their attorneys. No one has stepped forward as the Chronicle reporters’ source.

If Fainaru-Wada and Williams revealed their source, it would destroy their credibility and make potential sources wary of revealing sensitive information. And now, if they don’t reveal the source, they could be jailed for a year.

Their situation is different from Barry Bonds’ friend and personal trainer, Greg Anderson, who is currently being held in contempt for refusing to testify in Bonds’ case.

Anderson was convicted in the BALCO scandal and spent three months in jail.

This is a man who peddled steroids to professional athletes and only got three months in jail. Now he’s back in jail for protecting his friend.

The two people who exposed how widespread steroid use really is? The two people whose reporting led to a number of public service announcements warning children of the dangers of steroids? Who forced a sport to rid itself of an illegal substance?

They’re facing up to 12 months in prison, pending an appeal.

Fainaru-Wada and Williams are getting jail time for doing their job, and for doing the government’s job. If the reporters didn’t promise confidentiality to a source, they may not have gotten the information. If they didn’t get the information, the rest of the breakthroughs in the BALCO investigation would not have happened.

And they’re getting penalized for it.

Reporters need to be able to protect their sources. It is the only way to have a free press.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.