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Opinion: Who controls when news is released?

In this era of social-media proliferation, just about everyone can capture an unguarded moment with a smartphone. Those with information to dispense can no longer assume that the details will be released on the newsmaker’s timetable.

There has always been a tug-of-war between journalists and those who control information. Those who have the information want to keep it under wraps until they say it’s OK to release it. Journalists are in the business of delivering news to their customers as quickly as possible. That’s true more than ever in this era of instant news and gratification.

It is at this intersection where much friction crackles between newsmaker and news dispenser. The newsmaker assumes a proprietary right to information, a control that extends to when that information is released. The journalist sees no such constraints. Journalists see their role as implementing their informal “contract” with the reader, listener or viewer. Simply translated, this means: Get it to them now. Implicit in the “contract” is delivering the news with accuracy, fairness and balance and in a timely manner.

When the proverbial immovable object meets the irresistible force, something’s got to give. Usually, it’s tempers. The newsmakers are insistent that until they are “good and ready” to release the information, it’s nobody else’s business. The journalist disagrees, insisting the public has a right to know important information as soon as possible.

Into this vacuum, without official and verifiable facts, journalists now turn to credible sources or other avenues to pry loose whatever relevant information they can.

We are seeing this playing out in the case of the killings of the four University of Idaho students last November and the arrest and court activity surrounding Monroe County resident Bryan Kohberger.

The judge in the case has imposed a gag order on all of the parties in the sensational case that has captured world attention and has sent social media sleuths into overdrive.

We journalists hate to use the word “rumor” because it’s antithetical to our pledge of accuracy, but, let’s face it, because of competitive and deadline pressures, virtually all journalists have, at one time or another, engaged in varying degrees of rumormongering, even though most of us are reluctant to admit it.

Instead of using the word “rumor,” journalists will sometimes use such phrases as “according to some reports ...,” even when the reliability of the source of the information leaves something to be desired.

In the Kohberger case, we have all seen these stories where even if a source had bumped into the suspect in the hallway at Pleasant Valley High School from where Kohberger graduated, his or her opinions were being treated as gospel.

Sources and contacts are a journalist’s lifeline alternative to the uncooperative or foot-dragging primary sources of information. Effective journalists have a honeycomb of strategically located sources who can provide inside information. Because of this and for obvious reasons, these sources can’t be identified because to do so would compromise their effectiveness, cause them to be disciplined, even, possibly, cost them their jobs.

Editors and publishers are rightfully concerned about stories whose underpinnings rely mainly on unnamed sources and will frequently ask the reporter to divulge the source on a need-to-know basis. After all, it’s the editor’s or publisher’s butt which is on the line if there are legal consequences arising from a sensitive or controversial story based mainly on unnamed sources.

We journalists protect our sources at all costs. Once, about 53 years ago when I was a bureau chief for The Express (now The Express-Times) in Easton, a judge threatened to send me to jail if I didn’t reveal the source of a controversial story. I didn’t much relish the thought of being stuck in a jail cell, especially with a wife and three young children at home, but I was fully prepared to go if that’s what it took to protect the identity of my source to whom I had given my solemn pledge not to reveal her name.

Fortunately, the judge cooled down and took a different approach, letting me off the hook. You live and die as a journalist based on your word. When it comes to promising not to reveal my sources, my word is my bond.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.