On keeping and spilling secrets

“So-and-so told me, and I’m rather loud.” – how information gets spread around the pub office

Perhaps it’s not a secret that journalists are bad at, well, keeping secrets. Providing information to the public is part of the job. Of course, there are rules: classified information is classified for a reason, for instance, which is why Julian Assange got in so much trouble (aside from his sexual trangressions, of course). But by working in journalism, you affirm a commitment to the idea that most information belongs in the public eye. How the government or any other official body is using public money? Check. When laws are being broken? Check. If someone in a position of authority is saying one thing but doing another? Check, check, check. Accountability is our charge, and honesty is our creed.

Given all of that, you would suppose that we have a very difficult time keeping information under wraps, and I’ll admit that I twitch a bit every time I receive a press release prefaced with “EMBARGOED.” (Pro tip: organizations, particularly government organizations, can send out information that you are prohibited from printing before a certain time; this is done with things like the monthly unemployment report.) But, interestingly, I’d argue that journalists are also some of the best people at keeping secrets.

And perhaps that’s because of how we get a lot of our information. There are all sorts of ethical quandaries surrounding anonymous sources quoted in stories, and I won’t address them here. More often, though, what happens is that we receive tips on what questions to ask from sources who we then protect. These sorts of sources take cultivation: relationships are a product of years of personal and professional encounters. I’ll fully admit to having several carefully chosen sources located around campus that have helped me do some of my best work over the years. It’s not about weaseling information out of people; it’s about learning what questions to ask about topics you otherwise wouldn’t know exist. And it’s about respecting the trust of those sources and keeping their identities confidential.

And that’s my two cents for the night. Back into the crazy world of making a paper. Want to know what was said at the faculty budget forum today? Wondering what information is shared there that might not be shared with students at their respective forums? The story online later tonight; more to appear as it develops in the coming weeks.