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Reporters should demand more of their anonymous sources

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The past few weeks have not been good ones for journalists. On two coasts and in two trials the issue of anonymous sourcing and off-the-record conversations has come to the fore – and in both cases questions have been raised about reporters' methods.

The trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby ended last week in guilty verdicts on four of five counts of lying about his role in leaking the identity of former undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. But the story behind the story was the line of journalists – some of them household names – who were called before the jury to testify about confidential conversations they had with sources.

The judge said that "waivers" their sources had signed (under pressure from the prosecution) essentially voided the confidentiality agreements they had reached. In most cases, journalists then went back to get explicit OKs from their sources before testifying.

Out in California, the case about distribution of steroids to star athletes by the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) took an odd turn recently. Two journalists who'd reported on the BALCO scandal in 2004 faced jail time for refusing to say how they acquired the grand jury testimony of pro-baseball players admitting to steroid use. It turns out that they got their information from ... the defense team. A few weeks ago, defense lawyer Troy Ellerman confessed that he had leaked the information in hopes of getting a mistrial declared for his clients.

The reporters were eventually spared the threat of prison when the defense lawyer acknowledged that he was the source of the leak.

These are two different cases with two different outcomes. In the Libby case, the journalists all eventually talked. In the BALCO case, reporters were prepared to go to jail to protect a source who, in their minds, had given them information of overriding public interest about steroid use in baseball.

But to many in the public, the cases are linked by one question whose answer may be more black and white than it once seemed: Should journalists be allowed to be "above the law" and not obey when ordered to testify in court?

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