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Responsibility and the Press

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Should a newspaper print a story from a confidential report concerning ethics investigations, in which members of Congress are named, if the story was obtained as a result of an accidental release?

Late Thursday night (Oct. 29), The Washington Post released the following two stories as "Breaking News": Confidential House report reveals details of investigations into lawmakers, aides; Seven members of House defense subcommittee scrutinized by ethics investigators.

"House ethics investigators have scrutinized the activities of more than 30 lawmakers and several aids," the initial Post story begins, "in inquiries about issues including defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling, according to a confidential House ethics committee report prepared in July.

"The report appears to have been inadvertently placed on a publicly accessible computer network," the second graph reads, "and was provided to The Washington Post by a source not connected to the congressional investigations. The Committee said Thursday night that the document had been inadvertently released by a low-level staffer."

The Post concedes that the report was both "confidential" and "inadvertently" released.

The third graph carries the reaction by committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, Democrat from California, who "...cautioned ...that some activities taken by her Committee are preliminary and not a conclusive sign of inappropriate behavior."

However, the Committee's own official statement about the incident is a little more forcefully worded.

"The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has learned that certain electronic files of the Committee may have been exposed to unauthorized and inappropriate access by persons outside the Committee... Our initial review suggests that this unlawful access to confidential information involved the use of peer-to-peer file sharing software on the personal computer of a junior staffer, who is no longer employed by the Committee, while working from home.

"At any one time," the final graph of the statement reads, "the Committee has dozens of matters regarding Members, Officers, and employees before it, including both investigations and requests for advice regarding House rules, financial disclosure, and travel, among other issues. No inference to any misconduct can be made from the fact that a matter is simply before the Committee. For these reasons, the range of matters before the Committee is, and should remain, confidential."

The key points: "unauthorized and inappropriate access," "unlawful access to confidential information," "should remain, confidential."

So, was The Post right in releasing the story?

Before answering that question, let's take a look at the responsibilities of the press.

"The powers of the press," ethicist Michael Josephson writes, "should be treated as a public trust. [Those powers] should be used responsibly to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm. As a watchdog, the press should be fair, vigilant and aggressive in assuring that people of influence are held accountable."

The Post certainly appears to be living up to the "watchdog" aspect regarding accountability. The public is hyper-sensitive when it comes to Members of Congress engaging in any activities having to do with lobbyists and corporate influence peddling. However, the public's concern should not override basic fairness: "No inference to any misconduct," the Committee says, "can be made from the fact that a matter is simply before the Committee."

On the issue of fairness, Josephson writes, "[Journalists] should not take unfair advantage of another's mistakes or difficulties."

Considering the long list of scandals involving elected officials, the press needs to take a deep breath and consider the implications of releasing names of individuals which may, in fact, be innocent of ethics violations. Journalists need to respect the reputation of any elected official where the trust of the people is vital. The accidental and premature release of names infers scandal and could cause unjustified harm.

Therefore, as Josephson writes, "[journalists] should refuse to disclose information of a confidential, embarrassing and proprietary nature unless required to do so by overriding professional obligations, organization policies or law."

In this case, The Post could have written the story without releasing the names.

"Give me a break, Jim!," you say. "If the information has been inadvertently released to the public, some other news organization will pick it up and run with it, names and all."

True enough.

But at the end of the day, a news organization is defined by its credibility, and needs to recognize that in the long run, faithfulness to honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they convey should not be compromised if they value their reputation.

Finally, there's the issue of the "source."

"The report... was provided to The Washington Post by a source not connected to the congressional investigations."

Who is the source? What are the motives and credibility of the source?

If we are to rely on the press to provide the information necessary to make appropriate decisions relating to issues and individuals, we need to trust that they will treat all sides with the same level of integrity, responsibility and fairness that we expect from the elected officials they report on.

Jim Lichtman writes and speaks on ethics. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com.