Protecting Sources and Source Material

The ability to protect your sources and newsgathering materials is often critical to your being able to gather information and inform the public. In the course of assembling information for an article, post, podcast, or other work, you may obtain information that, for a number of reasons, you do not wish to make available to the public.

Ironically, confidentiality may be an essential part of bringing information to the public's attention because as a publisher, you may only be able to gather the information if you promise not to reveal the information's source. For example, reporting that involves the criticism of government and exposure of government and corporate wrongdoing often depends on the use of confidential sources.

Fortunately, the law provides tools with which to protect the information you obtain. Absent some kind of legal protection, a journalist or other individual gathering information for dissemination to the public may be compelled to identify his or her sources and produce documents in court and other governmental proceedings. Journalists and other citizens reporting the news have been asserting their right to keep their sources and materials confidential for longer than the United States has been an independent nation. In 1734, for example, John Peter Zenger refused to give the names of his sources when he was charged with seditiously libeling British Governor William Cosby of the New York Colony. Zenger, who was later tried and acquitted, was jailed for a month due to his refusal to identify his sources.

These legal protections are vital to the free flow of information in society. If reporters (and we use that term broadly here) are seen merely as an investigative arm of the government, individuals with information of great public concern may be afraid to share that information. As a result, the public may be deprived of information of critical importance to the proper functioning of our society and our democratic form of government.

The following sections address the legal challenges facing online publishers in maintaining the confidentiality of sources and source material and discusses the federal and state laws that may protect them from forced disclosure of this information.


Subject Area: