Friday, February 3, 2012

Considering ‘Reliable Sources’

Often we hear the news media citing “reliable sources” with inside information regarding anything from a celebrity’s addictions, to political strategy shifts and “secret” government maneuverings, to behind-the-scenes dealings in the sports world. The term seems like a contradiction in terms.

If the source is truly “reliable,” then why is he or she divulging privileged knowledge about the individual or organization? If anything, the “friend” or employee doesn’t seem very reliable for the people and entities involved.

Being a journalist, I understand sometimes key information is “leaked” when it’s premature to disclose it through official channels. But often connections on the “inside” are more than willing to communicate confidential information as long as they remain anonymous.

Call the sources “believable” or “credible”; just forget about the “reliable” label. If I were an employer, I’d want to know that in-house information would stay in-house.

Years ago, while reporting sports for Ohio State’s student newspaper, I made what some would consider my first misstep as a journalist: I was interviewing the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, Lou McCullough, who’d agreed for me to talk with him only because I kept pestering him for a story. He taught me a helpful motto that day: persistence neutralizes resistance.

Toward the end of the interview, McCullough confided he was about to become athletic director at Iowa State University. It would have been my first “scoop” as a reporter, beating even the daily newspapers in Columbus. But then he said the information was “off the record” and asked me to keep it confidential. He’d let me know in a couple of days when I could run the story.

I did as requested, not even telling my sports editor. One day later, the story about McCullough’s departure appeared in the sports section of one of the daily newspapers. I, the “scooper,” had become "scoopee."

Looking back, I could have written the article citing a “reliable source”; McCullough certainly was that. But instead, electing to keep my promise, I held off on the story and ended up reporting on news that had already been broken.

But if I had a “do-over,” I don’t think I’d have done differently. There have been times when for whatever reason I’ve compromised my integrity, but since becoming a follower of Jesus I’ve believed being a person of your word should not be determined by situational ethics. Just as you can’t be “a little bit pregnant,” you’re either a person of integrity or you’re not.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says much about this: “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity” (Proverbs 11:3). “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only for a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). “A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a trustworthy envoy brings healing”  (Proverbs 13:17).

If our world placed higher value on honesty and integrity, we'd be much better off today – in every respect.

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