Friday, February 23, 2007

When the source beats you to it...

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote this piece about his colleague, Dana Priest, and a run-in she had with Army officials over a story.

Priest is a national security reporter for the Post. Last week, she waited six days for the Army to respond to the paper's investigation of "decaying, cockroach-infested facilities and an overwhelmed patient-care bureaucracy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington."

Now, I think we've all experienced just a teeeny bit of frustration ourselves this past week, what with potential sources getting messages and never calling back, simply keeping you waiting, etc. We would understand how Priest felt when Army officials used the time she was waiting for a response to organize a briefing for any and all reporters.

The source scooped her!

And indeed, while Priest did have dibs on the story (other newspapers and so forth had to wait for her story to come out first), it's already out in the open. Every reporter knows about it.

Army officials said that they had already been thinking about briefing reporters on this issue. But that it was the Post investigation that had moved them to hold it sooner. They defended their actions by saying they wanted to get their side of the story out. But that's exactly what Priest was setting out to do, and then some.

Kurtz says there is an unspoken understanding that sources will not tell other reporters about a story. Well, that's great. I would think that's common sense. Since I'm an amateur, I would be incensed if this happened to me.

And I'm sure Priest was pretty riled by it. Indeed, she felt betrayed by her source and told him/her so. I don't suppose this is standard practice by government agencies, at least not all the time. The press is a government and society watchdog. That's what we're here for. Our job is to give them a voice, and as a courtesy, they should allow reporters to have their stories until they are published for everyone to see.

And I think there may just be a problem with trust between reporters and sources. It may not be as monumental a one as the confidentiality issue. But without a good reporter-source relationship in the works, journalism is impossible. And just as Barnett and Dale deceived Food Lion, they lost some credibility with their audience. And sources just as easily can lose credibility with reporters. So will Priest notify high Army officials about her investigations in the future? I'd say the answer is a resounding no.



At Sunday, February 25, 2007, Anonymous JE said...

But with institutions like the U.S. Army, you often need to notify them to even get access at all. The Army has put the press in a very difficult situation.


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