Media Adviser is an advice column from journalist and psychotherapist Rebekah Holt that offers insight on recurring media dramas and their related ethical dilemmas.
Q: I am a reporter and have a friend who works in law, and when we socialise we talk shop. The implicit but not explicit understanding is that what we tell each other about work is confidential.
Recently she told me something about a person in an elected government position that would be a significant story. Obviously I can’t breach her trust, but I think there is another way into the story that doesn’t implicate her. What should I do?
A: Welcome to the heart of darkness that is news! In which one must decide if the work switch is off when presented with something obscenely juicy. I reckon I have invented new yoga positions when friends have spilled lead story-worthy beans.
There is a point where you have to decide who you are in life. Are you THAT person? The one who grabbed the story and shit on the mate. Or are you the other less cut-throat, possibly more well-rounded person who doesn’t breach a cone of silence without explicit permission?
I have seen this go both ways, and the people who chose the first option have later gone on to make even worse choices. One of them now does comms for a minor state-owned asset, and honestly, none of us who had to deal with her could be happier because she only got worse.
So how can you make this work in an ethical and transparent manner?
I have been in a similar position and when I knew there was definitely another way into the story, as you describe, I ran it past my friend and said, “Look, I have a completely separate source that does not incriminate or identify you — are we good?” We started the negotiating from there.
It worked for me, but if I hadn’t gotten sign off then I would have let it go — probably with the understanding that I was first to get the nod when it was safe.
There might also be legal issues if your friend is in law and this case is before the courts. Just make sure you are clean on the legals if you are going down that path.
Ultimately, if this is a friend that has previously enjoyed your keeping of confidences then you have a responsibility to be straight with them. If a friend can’t trust you, then how would a source or a whistleblower ever trust you?