How to Report Like a Pulitzer Prize Winner

A reporter’s source is like a lawyer’s evidence. Without one, a story can hardly be reliable or believable. Yet oftentimes finding the perfect source can be incredibly difficult, and the case of the Watergate scandal certainly proves to be no exception. Through a close analysis of the events detailed in All The President’s Men, written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, it can be determined just how much effort is involved in obtaining, protecting, and confirming confidential sources.

When an interview is being arranged, a source is offered three basic options by the reporter pertaining to how the information may or may not be disclosed: on the record, off the record, and background. On the record testimony can be fully quoted with the source’s name; off the record testimony can not be quoted in any fashion whatsoever. Background information, however, may be quoted, but only anonymously. At a later time, information previously categorized as “background” or “off the record” can be put “on the record,” but only with permission granted from the source. It is important for a source to establish one of these criterion before the interview occurs. Although some leeway may be granted in specific cases, “retroactive background” (background declared during the middle or at the end of the conversation) is rarely permitted.

Sources are usually the ones in charge of establishing their anonymity since they provide the information. Their decisions are often based upon careful consideration of the potential legal and personal problems that may arise as a result of information sharing. In Bernstein’s interview with Sloan, Sloan is unwilling to go on the record because his lawyers “had advised against it” and he had “pledged to the prosecutors that he would not make any public statement before the Watergate trial” (BW 82). The status quo of a source’s life may also be upset due to on the record testimony. Donald Segretti bears witness to this fact during his conversation with Meyers and Bernstein when he stated “My friends have been harassed, my parentsâÂ?¦ my phone is tapped, it clicks all the time; [and] people have been following me” (BW 202).

Because a source’s very life may be at stake, protection of anonymity becomes imperative. Moreover, a reporter, in making the deal to grant anonymity, is essentially entering into a contract with the source on behalf of the newspaper. Therefore he or she is legally compelled to uphold the protection. One of the ways Bernstein and Woodward exercise caution with their sources is by maintaining separate lists “because confidential sources would feel more comfortable that way” (BW 50). Woodward goes as far as granting his friend Deep Throat the status of “deep background” (BW 71), meaning the source will not be quoted and the information will only be utilized in confirming the reporters’ own suspicions and inspiring new leads. Moreover, Bernstein and Woodward are also very careful in sharing information with their editors. “The line was drawn at a point which satisfied Bradlee’sâÂ?¦ responsibilities as an editor, as well as Bernstein’s and Woodward’s promises of anonymity to their sources” (BW146). Furthermore, the reporters even refused to divulge their sources when issued a subpoena (BW 260), opting instead to simply keep quiet and face the legal ramifications. At one point, however, the reporters blow a confidential FBI source, reasoning that “they had been set up; their anger was reasonable, [and] their self-preservation was at stake” (BW 190). Luckily, they were able to avoid a potentially serious legal backlash.

The information an anonymous source shares is often incredibly damaging and dangerous to possess. Hence, confirming such information involves a very difficult and oftentimes unreliable process. In attempting to obtain confirmation on Haldeman’s involvement, Bernstein and Woodward try to verify the information provided by one anonymous source by confirming it with other anonymous sources. Confirmation provided by these sources often comes in an indirect form, such as the “name elimination game” played with Sloan (BW 174) and the “hang up by 10” game instituted for Sloan’s lawyer (BW 180). Ultimately, the rules of these games get misunderstood and too much information becomes inferred by the reporters. Unfortunately, they eventually break their own guidelines by not obtaining the most reliable information possible and instead send to print a horrible inaccuracy which severely damages not only their own reputations but the Post’s as well. Bernstein and Woodward also try to validate their anonymous sources by deliberately seeking out grand jurors who “took an oath to keep secret their deliberations and the testimony before them” (BW 207); and, although not necessarily illegal, it was still a very shady act to commit.

Bernstein and Woodward ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for their investigative efforts. Even though at times they precariously straddled the line of legality, by staying true to their own established code of journalistic integrity, they were able to shed light upon a major of government scandal and in most cases prove to be fine examples of how to properly handle a source.

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