‘SF Chron’ Defends Source Protection Amid Criticism

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By: Joe Strupp

Recent criticism of the San Francisco Chronicle for protecting a source in the BALCO steroid story who apparently leaked secret grand jury testimony in an effort to help his clients in the case has drawn a strong defense from Editor Phil Bronstein and one of the reporters on the story.

Bronstein and Lance Williams, who broke the steroid scandal along with fellow scribe Mark Fainaru-Wada, continued to decline comment on attorney Troy Ellerman, who pleaded guilty last week to federal charges after investigators revealed he had admitted leaking testimony from the grand jury probe to the paper. Ellerman, who represented several BALCO executives in the federal investigation, apparently leaked the information in an effort to get the case thrown out of court, or at least delayed via mistrial.

The recent revelations about Ellerman have sparked criticism of the Chronicle from news outlets ranging from the nearby San Francisco Examiner to Slate magazine and various journalism academics and observers. Although Bronstein and Williams continue to neither confirm nor deny that Ellerman was their source, both men defended the use of sources, in general, who may have questionable motives.

“Do you want the information or not, is what it comes down to,” said Williams, who along with Fainaru-Wada faced jail time for refusing to disclose their source prior to the Ellerman revelation. “As reporters, we have so few means to persuade people to talk to us. You can offer confidentiality — and once you have done that, you have to keep your word.”

Fainaru-Wada declined comment on the case or the sourcing issue.

Bronstein said it is important to look at source motives, but said judgments need to take all aspects of a story into account. “In my experience as a reporter and an editor, sources have motives,” he said. “And they range from good to bad. People need to, in general, make sure they consider everything.”

When asked if the criticism of the paper surprised him, Bronstein said, “it never surprises me in journalism, nothing surprises me.”

Williams, a longtime investigative reporter, said negotiating with sources requires a firm protection for them, not one based on motives or potential need to disclose identities. “I don’t see that that is a workable rule in the real world,” he said. “I think it would discourage a source if that confidentiality was dependent upon anything.”

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