Best practices for national-security reporting

With the recent surveillance leaks in mind, we want to call attention to a collection of “best practices” for journalists reporting on national-security issues which New York Times reporter Adam Clymer laid out as part of a larger report a couple years after the attacks of 9/11; this is a condensed version of Clymer’s summary (from SGI director Rick Blum’s recent Roll Call op-ed):

  • Carefully consider the consequences of publishing.
  • Take government concerns seriously.
  • Check sources.
  • Tell readers when making agreements with governments regarding what stays in (or is left out of) a story.

Now, 2003 is a decade – and more than a few national-security journalism cycles – in the past – but Clymer’s advice remains relevant and valuable, even if a measure of its success is how unobtrusive it is. Ironically, the best practices may be so transparent that they can’t be seen.

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SGI op-ed in RollCall.com outlines way forward on leaks: Engagement

In Guest Commentary on RollCall.com this morning, we give concrete ways the government should better engage with journalists on stories based on unauthorized disclosures (“leaks”).  We argue that when reporters bring stories to agencies on national security and foreign affairs where they may be some sensitive information in the story, the reporters take seriously their obligation to mitigate against possible harms from any disclosures. The government, too, has an obligation to engage the press when these stories are brought to officials to avoid possible harms from such stories.

The entire commentary is available here.

SGI Statement on the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records

The action of the U.S. Department of Justice is an affront to the relationship between the government and news media that our nation’s founders established over two centuries ago.  Journalists experienced in reporting on global affairs and national security respect the government’s need to keep information confidential to protect national security and carefully consider the government’s concerns when reporting on such matters.

Last year Congress rejected a package of changes from the Senate Intelligence Committee that would have redefined the relationship between the government and press on reporting related to global affairs and national security. Until the Justice Department’s actions are better explained, they appear to be another reaction that unnecessarily threatens the balance between the government’s right to keep secrets to protect national security and the public’s right to be informed about global affairs. While delicate and sometimes tense, this balance has never been disrupted to the point that our national security is breached; quite the contrary, in fact:  thorough reporting on national security issues almost always serves the public ‘s and government’s interests and makes our nation safer.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a coalition of media associations promoting greater transparency in the federal government. Members include the American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.

Sunshine in Government Award honors innovation in FOIA, Senator who defended news coverage

In honor of Sunshine Week, the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) is pleased to recognize three leaders in government who will receive SGI’s Sunshine in Government Award (“Sunshine Award”) for their commitment and work to strengthen open government.

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Senate drops controversial Title V proposals, passes FY13 intel authorization bill (S. 3454)

The nine members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative are pleased the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454) does not include proposals that would have curtailed the flow of information to the public about national security and foreign affairs. The media takes seriously the obligation to consider potential harms from disclosures of sensitive information while reporting the news. These proposals simply went too far in cutting off vital information to the public about world events and national security issues and had not been subject to adequate consideration by Congress.
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Senate drops anti-leaks proposals

The nine members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative are pleased Senate negotiators dropped controversial proposals in the Intelligence  Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454) that would have harmed news reporting on national security and foreign affairs.

The media takes seriously the obligation to consider potential harms from disclosures of sensitive information while reporting the news. These proposals simply went too far in cutting off vital information to the public about world events and national security issues and had not been subject to adequate consideration by Congress.

What they are saying: Criticism of anti-leaks provisions of intel authorization (S. 3454)

Criticism of sections 505 and 506 of S. 3454, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (emphases added):

The legislation would end contacts that often benefit both the government and the public by allowing the exchange of accurate information about vital national security issues and intelligence activities, including abuses requiring attention. As executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, I know firsthand that such conversations also help the news media avoid publishing information that, inadvertently, might harm national security.

Without access to knowledgeable career officials, it would be much more difficult for the news media to determine the accuracy of information or whether its publication or broadcast could truly harm national security.

Especially in times of war, declared or undeclared, it is important to maintain the right balance between accountability and national security.

 –Washington Post op-ed by former executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., December 6, 2012

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