News media consumers could use a lesson on leaks

November 03, 2003|By Christopher Hanson

A CONSCIENTIOUS insider learns that his bosses are covering up dark dealings in government or industry. Acting at great personal risk, he leaks his discovery to a journalist. The resulting exposM-i brings down the bad guys. Justice is served.

This myth of the leaker-as-hero has captured the public imagination since the 1970s in such books and films as All the President's Men, The China Syndrome and The Insider.

But the myth has obscured a less heroic reality. Many of those who tell tales out of school are not putting their careers on the line for the public good. Instead, they are motivated by personal or political gain. A lot of them deal in half-truths. And reporters are often willing to be used for the sake of a scoop.

Consider the once-disciplined Bush administration. Under pressure on Iraq, it has sprung as many leaks as its predecessors, resulting in wildly contradictory stories such as these:

The Pentagon rushed us into war despite State Department warnings that rebuilding Iraq would create huge problems. After such problems materialized, the White House stepped in to clip the Defense Department's wings.

The White House rushed us into war, warning that Iraq's nuclear weapons program posed a threat -- even though the CIA had voiced doubts that such a program existed.

The CIA goaded the country toward war, exaggerating evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Cynics inside the Washington Beltway instantly and accurately decoded these as attempts by officials to shift blame to others for the increasingly controversial Iraq war. The journalists who wrote the stories no doubt regarded them as legitimate efforts to get the truth out.

But most news consumers are not Washington insiders. They are people like my brother, a teacher in Anacortes, Wash., who regard a news story as straight information. They are thus at serious risk of being misled. When anonymous senior White House officials leaked the name of a CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak, TV pundits speculated the motive was to damage the operative's career to retaliate against or silence her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Mr. Wilson had debunked White House claims that Iraq was developing nuclear arms. But with rare exceptions, like the Novak case, ordinary folk don't hear much about leaks, the strategy behind them and the impact they have on news.

In some cases, reporters give hints about the motivations of their anonymous sources, but that part too often gets cut in the story that actually appears on TV, on the wires and in space starved newspapers. So here is a modest proposal for clearing up the confusion these stories often create. Why don't news outlets start using a set of standard warning symbols to accompany any news story based on leaks?

Every such story would come with a graphic icon of a leaking water tap, and would include a legend to define other key symbols that would be inserted to flag leakers' self-serving motives:

Knife -- Warning: The purpose of this leak is to hurt or destroy the source's political enemy. (Mr. Novak's CIA agent disclosure needed such an icon.)

Pointing finger -- Warning: The source is attempting to shift blame to someone else. (This icon would have been suitable for the rush-to-war leaks cited above.)

Blowfish -- Warning: The anonymous source is puffing up himself or his boss. Be skeptical. (This icon should be used for virtually every anecdote leaked from the White House about a president at work.)

Balloon -- Warning: trial balloon. If the proposed change in policy described in this story draws boos, it will be disowned by the administration as a figment of the reporter's imagination.

Of course, my icon idea is itself a trial balloon that almost certainly will be shot down. News outlets are unlikely to admit that some of their reports might pose consumer safety hazards.

An alternative would be media literacy training woven through high school and college curriculums, preparing citizens to decode the news. Journalism remains vital to our democracy, but only so long as we read it on more than one level.

Christopher Hanson teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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