So a journalist friend of mine has been contacted by a cyber-criminal who stole a whole bunch of high-profile corporate data. The criminal has agreed to provide my friend with the whole salacious story of what misdeeds the high-profile company has been committing as well as discussing the vast troves of highly confidential user-data that they stole.
I am interested to learn what are the legal and professional (industry standard) obligations a journalist in this position might have? For example, if they know another crime is about to be committed, such as the leaking of the data, do they need to give notice? What about if the criminal, while acting as a confidential source, accidentally discloses info that could be used to identify them? Does the journalist have a legal or professional obligation to share that info with authorities (or perhaps the opposite, do they have an obligation to protect the criminal source)? Finally, what must the journalist say if questioned by police?
I will assume YANAL unless otherwise stated.
IANAL … as assumed … Free Press in the USA gives some wiggle room, if the New York Times receives a package of classified Pentagon documents from an anonymous source, they’re pretty much free to publish the papers … the perp brings in the documents themselves then again the Times can publish and they don’t have to disclose the source …
I believe this ends if the Times is forewarned about a crime … the perp says they will go and steal the documents for the Times to publish … they may have a duty to report to the authorities … and of course the Times can’t in any way help the perp, this becomes “material participation” and that will get the Times into serious trouble …
AFAIK, Julian Assange is not currently under indictment in the USA for publishing anything on Wikileaks … his legal troubles have to do with an under-aged girl in Sweden …
[As with all things law, accurate answers depend on all the facts and the laws of the particular jurisdiction. What follows is general information, not legal advice]
Generally speaking, a journalist first contacted after the crime has been committed has no legal obligations. Legal obligations might arise when the journalists encourages or participates in the crime.
One does not generally have an obligation to report a crime. Crimes related to failing to report generally require that the defendant also took steps to conceal the crime. Choosing not to talk to police is not concealment.
With limited exceptions, no one is obligated to talk to the police as a matter of law until a court has overruled an assertion of Fifth Amendment rights. None of those exceptions apply here. Generally the way police questioning about sources plays out is a journalist asserts one or more privileges and a court decides whether they apply.
I’ll let someone else answer as to professional/ethical obligations.
As noted, there may be some variation among jurisdictions, but legally, there is generally no privilege applicable to a reporter’s knowledge regarding anonymous sources. Prosecutors don’t often subpoena journalists, but they can, and the court can jail the journalist for contempt if he or she refuses to answer questions. This happened to Judith Miller.
From a professional point of view, there is no formal code of ethics nor any supervisory body that controls entry to the profession. There are norms and standards the violation of which might get a journalist disciplined or fired by an employer, and something like burning a source might also hobble a journalist’s ability ever to cultivate another anonymous source.
In a situation like this, I think the journalist would insist on knowing the source’s identity, so as to have confidence in his or her position at the company, and would seek some way of corroborating that any documents the source provides are genuine. It would be standard practice to seek out a corroborating second source before accusing the company of wrongdoing (violation of this norm is apparently one of the reasons for CNN’s recent retraction of an article). The journalist would presumably have to promise anonymity to the source.
Disclaimer: This is just anonymous chat and not legal advice. I am not the lawyer for anyone described in this thread.