Alyse Backus Holding Back Information September 15, 2010

³Our liberty depends on the freedom of press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.´ --Thomas Jefferson As journalists, we are often faced with the same questions. These questions are crucial in how we define our profession, essentially who we are. What role do we play in society? Who are we ultimately responsible to? Is it the public we report for? Or the government that grants us our freedom of press? Or is it our editors and publishers who employ us? By attempting to answer these questions, we try to create some ethical guidelines for when to hold information from the public in order to cooperate with law enforcement and government agencies. This question can make or break relationships with sources. This can range from a national to a local level. Do we release details from serial killings or will it invoke more violence? Could releasing certain information be a threat to national security? What if we release this news and it creates a widespread sense of panic? When should the public know and when should they be kept in the dark? This almost seems overwhelming as a journalist. There seems to be so much grey area. History has provided us with examples where holding information back worked and others that showed how ineffective reporting failed the public. To begin with, I think the role of a journalist needs to be explored. I feel that our place in society is to act as a filter. In essence, we take things that are convoluted and murky and clarify it into terms that are understandable and provide an objective approach to issues and events. Every person should be able to grasp the concept of our stories. In order to do this, we need to be able

to present the public with all the facts. This can be tricky when certain law enforcement or government agency asks us to keep secrets. Are there times when this is acceptable and appropriate? If so, how do we decipher which situations qualify? Let¶s explore a few stories where this happened in order to gain some background education in order to answer the questions that I presented above. BTK BTK serial killer, Dennis Rader, is a well-known example of how police asked the press to withhold details from the public. Law enforcement was concerned about the effect that releasing certain information would have on the killer¶s activities. In the 1970¶s, staff reporter at the Wichita Sun, Cathy Henkel received a copy of a twopage letter that BTK had sent police. Henkel told her editors there was no way the letter should be published in full due to the extremely graphic nature. Her editor also expressed concern about how publishing the letter would affect the current police investigation. Incidentally, the police were not thrilled that she had possession of the letter. The current police chief at the time refused to ever speak to Henkel again and kicked her out of his office. After BTK came out of hiding and continued killing again in the late nineties and early two thousands, ABC affiliate KAKE and the Wichita Eagle knew of details of what the killer had left in a box of clues. They also had a copy of word puzzle that identified that name and street address of a suspect. These two press organizations also had knowledge of a doll with its hands tied behind its back with pantyhose. None of these things were released to the public. Once again, police had asked for details of the investigation not to be released. There was a fear that publishing such details could encourage BTK to kill more. At the time, publishing this information seemed like an issue of public safety. Of course, hindsight is

20/20. The details that were kept from the public turned out to be incredibly relevant to who this serial killer was. The knots described in the letter Henkel received described knots that any Boy Scout would know. After Rader¶s arrest, a new story was published about Boy Scouts in the area describing him as a knot expert. Could releasing this information have led Rader¶s capture happening sooner? With crimes, there is also the fear of copycat crimes being committed. By releasing certain details to the public, there is always the possibility that someone will attempt to imitate the crime based on what he or she has seen in the media. This is referred to as the copycat effect. The New York Times Breaks NSA Wiretap In 2005, the New York Times broke a story about the Bush administration authorizing the National Security Administration to perform a wiretap that monitored American citizens¶ international calls and emails. The administration allowed the NSA to begin doing this shortly after September 11, 2001. The administration did not get any sort of warrant to conduct these searches. The Bush administration asked the New York Times not to publish their article released on Dec. 16, 2005. The administration felt publishing the article could affect current investigations and alert potential terrorists that may be being monitored by the wiretap. The Times met with senior officials of the administration and decided to delay printing the story for a year in order to conduct further reporting. When the story was published, certain details were not published that the administration had deemed as potentially useful to terrorists. This is a clear example on a national level when the media had to examine their relationship with the government. Even though the administration felt that national security would be threatened by exposing the wiretap, the New York Times felt the public had a right to

know that their civil liberties were possibly being violated. The Times used their story to hold the government accountable to the people and they truly served the interest of the people. Is there such a thing as ³necessary secrets?´ Gabriel Schoenfeld is a scholar at the Hudson Institute. He published a book, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. This book claims that they are necessary secrets the press should keep from the public in order to preserve national security. He argued the reporters that covered the above wiretapping story should have been prosecuted for publishing classified information. Schoenfeld claims that while the public may have the right to know, the public¶s right not to know also exists. He says that by electing a government, the public is agreeing to have certain things kept from them and their enemies. By publishing information when asked not to by the government, the press is essentially impeding on this right not to know. According to an interview with U.S. News, the scholar believes a certain level of security be maintained in order to protect national security. Since 9/11, Schoenfeld says that the country has been in a state of war and that level of secrecy serves as our defense against our enemies. In the interview, Schoenfeld claims that journalists are not, in fact, responsible to the public but rather their editors and publishers. He says that this creates possible incentives that are not necessarily linked with public interests. When to draw the line So as journalists, we are faced with the question of how appropriate holding back information is in our profession. Who do we truly serve? What information could be delayed? What has to be published? Do we cater to the government and law enforcement? Ultimately, where do we draw the line?

We have to look at the bigger picture. Covering a serial killer is completely different than covering matters of national security and foreign policy. How will our story affect our society? What is the aftermath of publishing the information in question? Will publishing details about a serial killer lead to his capture or will it invoke a killing spree? By publishing potentially shady government activity, are we serving our watchdog role or jeopardizing national security? These are tough questions to answer, and there isn¶t a black and white answer. Each circumstance is unique and has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. I feel as a journalist that I serve the public I report for. I serve the people that wake up in the morning and read my story with their cup of Folgers. I am a member of this public. What do I deserve to know? If my civil liberties are being violated by a wiretap, I want to know. If I learn that information is being kept from me, I think it is valid to feel a sense of betrayal on behalf of the press. The press serves as a liaison between the people and government and public agencies. Media is essentially our window into these agencies. In order to preserve a truly independent press, the public must come first. Journalists can¶t become puppeteers for government agencies publishing only certain information at certain times. The public interest must have priority. If publishing certain things endangers the public, then publishing it isn¶t necessarily in the public¶s best interest, and other alternatives can be explored in a negotiation process with the government and the press. Ultimately, the press is the voice for the people. Just like our government and law enforcement agencies, the press is there for the people. It is our duty to be objective and present the facts as fully as possible. We are a country for the people, of the people. The press must do right by the public.

Bibliography Kingsbury, Alex. ³Why Classified Secrets Should be Kept from the Public.´ U.S. News. 11 June 2010. <>. y Lichtblau, Eric. Risen, James. ³Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers without Courts.´ The New York Times. 16 December 2005. <>. y McBride, Kelly. ³On the Dangers of Holding Back.´ Poynter Online. 5 March 2005. <>.


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