Seized Reporters’ Records Highlight Government/Media Tumult

doj obtains journalists' phone, email records

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A wave of media complaints of records being seized raises concerns. The government often seeks reporters’ phone records to identify confidential sources. Politics and media famously butt heads.

Reporters holding microphones up to politician
Protections for journalists from being forced by the government to reveal confidential sources remains a longstanding contention. Photo By wellphoto / Shutterstock

A bipartisan governmental practice of attempting to out confidential journalistic sources has returned to the spotlight. Reporters have expressed concern that their private email and phone records have been sought by the Justice Department, which could discourage sources from coming forth in the future.

Lawmakers and the media have long had a contentious relationship. When it comes to issues like anonymous sources and government seizure of reporters’ records, our opinions are likely to reflect our personal political views.

In her video series Understanding the U.S. Government, Dr. Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, explained how political leanings affect the public’s feelings towards news outlets.

Politics and the Media by the Numbers

Much in the same way that people with conservative versus liberal views will have very different opinions on specific political issues, they also differ in their thoughts on the news industry.

“A 2019 study showed Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that journalists lack ethics,” Dr. Victor said. “Thirty-one percent of Republicans say that journalists have ‘very low ethical standards,’ while only 5% of Democrats believe this about journalists.

“Among people who say they are highly aware of politics, 91% of Democrats and only 16% of Republicans say they have a great deal of confidence that journalists act in the best interests of the public.”

On the other hand, according to Dr. Victor, people who say they don’t pay much attention to politics showed a far less severe gap in their assurance of journalists’ intentions. In that group, 62% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans expressed confidence in journalists.

Without judging either opinion, the contrast is unmistakably stark. Dr. Victor said that the media is not the main cause of the political schism in the United States—scholars find more evidence that income inequality and other contrasting factors between parties contribute the most—but the media is a player nonetheless.

Good Night and Good Luck

Part of our positions on the media’s use of anonymous sources and whistleblowers—and the government’s desire to unmask them—could also stem from what we think about specific modern news anchors and hosts.

“When you think about it, the fact that America had a 20- or 30-year period where news media was seen as balanced and objective is now the outlier,” Dr. Victor said. “From around 1960, when most Americans had televisions in their homes, until the 1980s when cable television began to boom, there were three major news networks: NBC, ABC, and CBS.

“These networks hosted evening news programs with iconic television anchors like Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel, Edward Murrow, David Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw.”

Not only did most people in that era learn their news from one of these anchors, but their shows were generally made with similar production value and production strategies. Additionally, between each program, there were very little differences in which information was presented and how.

“Today, fewer Americans get their news from these major networks,” Dr. Victor said. “Now, the cable news networks are much more popular, such as Fox and MSNBC, with their specialized programming and quirky hosts.”

Since reporters began announcing the information seizure, the federal government has promised to stop obtaining reporters’ records.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily