Panel Discussion on Anonymous Sourcing Coming to National Press Club

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By: Joe Strupp

Some of the news industry’s most powerful leaders will gather for a panel discussion on anonymous sourcing and leaks at the National Press Club in Washington next month, with the goal of finding a way to get reporters and sources off the growing dependency on secrecy.

The morning event, scheduled for March 17, is being described as a way to “address the off-the-record briefings, anonymous sourcing and official leaking that plague Washington — and the atmosphere of heightened government secrecy underlying them,” according to an invitation being circulated. “Who benefits from anonymity? Why? Whom does it harm, and how?”

“Our goal is to get some unspoken truths out there,” said Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former Washington Post ombudsman, who will moderate the event. “We aren’t going to be able to address the downside to [anonymous sourcing] until we understand its allure.”

Presented as the Fifth Annual Curtis B. Hurley Symposium, the discussion will open with comments from Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, Overholser confirmed.

The roundtable discussion will follow, aimed at “achieving practical steps toward on-the-record attribution.”

The group will include: Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press; Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary; Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today; Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents Association; Andy Alexander, FOI Chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; Barbara Cochran, president of Radio and Television News Directors Association; Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Pete Weitzel, coordinator for the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government; Stephen Labaton, New York Times reportrt and co-chair of the Press Club FOI committee; Jack Shafer, Slate editor-at-large; Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times; Michael Getler, ombudsman of The Washington Post; Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center ombudsman; and Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center.

“We have seen from experience that one medium can’t do it alone; one news agency can’t do it alone,” Overholser said about the need for such a broad group of panelists. “You are not going to do away with leaks or off-the-record sources. But it is important to challenge the downside it leads to.”

The event comes at a time when numerous reporters — from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco — are being urged to reveal confidential sources, receiving subpoenas to testify about sources, and facing jail time for refusing to reveal source identities in a number of cases. In addition, Congress is considering legislation that would institute a federal shield law like those in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

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