Report on port security flaws served public interest

July 17, 2005|By Paul Moore

THE SUN'S recent report on security lapses at the port of Baltimore did what investigative journalism is supposed to do - expose problems that spur officials to take corrective action.

But at a time when New York Times reporter Judith Miller is in jail for refusing to reveal her confidential sources, and with the public increasingly apprehensive about potential acts of terrorism, this story was published only after an exceptionally high degree of internal scrutiny.

The article described dilapidated fences, nonexistent or poorly functioning surveillance systems and new security equipment that was not being used. Some port police officers, who served as confidential sources, detailed staff shortages and poor management decisions that they believed affected the level of security at the port.

The project was accompanied by photographs showing examples of the security problems and a large map of various port terminals. The article and the photo captions did not specifically locate the problem areas.

The reporters and editors involved in the story carefully weighed the virtue of specificity against security concerns. Editors questioned how much detail the readers needed to know to understand what was going on. The goal was to provide no more data than absolutely necessary.

A "To our readers" box explained that the project's purpose "was to improve safety by focusing public attention on shortcomings without providing a road map to those who might want to exploit them."

But some readers were still upset.

"Was anyone else incredulous by The Sun's 7/10/05 article, `Port security gaps pose threat?'" said reader Mary Zaepel. "Not only did The Sun point out the specific vulnerabilities, they showed pictures! Why not just print the headline, `Terrorists, Enter Here.' This obviously wasn't an article to heighten tourism, but terrorism."

From reader Nancy Levy: "I was very upset about the bombings in London, so The Sun's port story really hit me hard. Your newspaper's report has value, but I wish it had not been so explicit. It seemed too accessible for those who want to destroy us."

Gary A. Smith said: "I am concerned about the weaknesses in security, but I am more concerned about the nature of the information revealed in the article. We are a nation at war. In a time of war one should not be communicating information that may be of value to one's enemies."

Other readers such as Don Friedman saw it differently: "The extensive analysis of port security and its problems is just what this area needs to wake up our citizens and convince them to push for real improvements in security. Do our local/state/national leaders really understand what is necessary?"

Despite the concerns expressed about information in the port article - and concerns about potential legal ramifications for using anonymous sources - The Sun made the right decision to publish the article. In my view, the information in the article and photos was in the public interest.

In the days following Miller's incarceration, newspapers are more concerned than ever about putting themselves and their reporters in legal jeopardy. The editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as to write a column explaining why he decided not to run two investigative stories, which relied on leaked information.

In this climate, top Sun editors conferred with the newspaper's publisher and legal advisers about whether to publish an article based partly on confidential documents. The newspaper decided to run the story. "We all agreed it was the right thing to do," said editor Tim Franklin.

Michael Dresser, one of two reporters on the project, said: "This article could not have been written without using anonymous sources. We were approached early this year by a member of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police who was acting as a spokesman for a group of officers who were concerned about security at the port."

The Sun has criteria for when sources can remain anonymous, and one of them is when a source could lose a job for talking to the newspaper.

"They still have assumed considerable risks because the sources were identified as police," Dresser said. "Readers deserved more than a vague attribution such as `Transportation Department employees.' Noting that they were police made the reporting more credible."

After the story was published, a state legislative panel scheduled hearings on port security for September. F. Brooks Royster III, who was recently named port director, told the newspaper his staff is examining issues raised in the story.

In a perfect world, these kinds of investigative articles would be unnecessary because, as Dresser notes, "front-line security people would observe problems, bring them to the attention of their superiors and corrective action would follow. But in the real world, people such as my sources encounter bosses who don't want to hear bad news and a workplace culture that punishes those who take their concerns to the top."

If state and local officials make port security a higher priority, The Sun's reporting will have helped make the ports safer for everyone, including those who have criticized the newspaper's decision to provide details about the problems.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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