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The Roles and Responsibilities of Reporters

In the wake of the trial of Lewis Libby, which put many well-known journalists in the unpleasant glare of a different sort of spotlight, some musings abut the craft. What is the role of a reporter? What is that reporter's responsibility?

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Ten of the 19 witnesses in the trial that convicted Lewis Libby were journalists. An analysis by reporter Adam Liptack in the New York Times called that a spectacle that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Some of the best-known journalists in America testified about what Lewis Libby told them and when. The charge wasn't murder, kidnapping or even revealing the identity of a spy. It was perjury, whether what Mr. Libby told reporters differed from what he told the grand jury.

Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the Times she worries that other prosecutors will now be encouraged to call reporters into court. Prosecutors have already subpoenaed two San Francisco Chronicle reporters to tell them who gave them information about steroids in baseball. Those sources have since been identified by others.

Jane Kirtley, University of Minnesota media law professor, told the Times that journalists may talk tough about protecting sources, but most of them have done enough prison stories to know that they don't want to spend even a night in one. Maybe the time has come when reporters should give their sources Miranda warnings, she says: anything you say may be used against you in a court of law.

We can debate about the motives of these sources, says Mark Feldstein at George Washington University, but the chill is as real for the idealistic whistleblower as it is for the vindictive or malicious political operative. Now, people are often puzzled why reporters feel their entitled not to name their sources. If reporters have potential evidence of a crime, why shouldn't they be made to testify like any other citizen? What if they have information that could thwart an attack, set free an innocent man, or identify a murderer?

Reporters usually play the Watergate card. We say that if Woodward and Bernstein, and Bob Woodward, by the way, testified in the Libby trial, had to identify their sources, the Watergate story would never have been told. I found that crying boo about Watergate doesn't impress many young people. What does Watergate mean to them? Political hijinks.

Who was Richard Nixon? The man who opened the door to China. But you might wonder if the stories of poor treatment of wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Hospital would have been told if the people who tipped off Washington Post reporters thought they would give up their identities. They might have been disciplined, threatened or fired. And a series that may help thousands of people who served their country might never have been told.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small