When longtime investigative journalist David Cay Johnston received two pages of President Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return in the mailbox of his home in Rochester, New York in March, there were plenty of ways to trace who leaked it to him. Johnston had the envelope, with a postmark and a stamp, and far scanter evidence has been used to find people who have sent things through the mail.
But hunting down the source of this long-sought clue to Trump’s financial history might have discouraged future leakers. So Johnston didn’t do it—not even for his own edification or to gauge the trustworthiness of the leak. In fact, he thought about burning those original documents.
It’s one of the unprecedented quandaries faced by journalists in this new era of covering the government substantially through leaks and at a time of conspiracy theories, misdirection, power plays, deflection, allegations of fake news, and fears of pervasive government surveillance. Should journalists seek a source’s identity and motivations? Share these with readers or viewers? Publish or broadcast information that hasn’t been confirmed? Questions like these arise when WikiLeaks releases more information about a presidential candidate than journalists can effectively fact-check or when BuzzFeed posts a sketchy Russian dossier in spite of skepticism that any of the scandalous information in it is true.
By Michael Bird and Stefan Candea