A phone-y issue?

Caller ID raises confidentiality questions

The Washington Post says its new telephone system will not be used to reach out and put the touch on anonymous news sources.

By Julie Kredens, staff writer

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Could new phone technology put the confidentiality of news sources at risk?

Caller ID, the subject of many “invasion-of-privacy” arguments, has now made its way into one of the nation’s biggest daily newspapers. The feature, which allows the recipient of a call to see the number of the party calling, has raised concerns about keeping the anonymity of anonymous news sources.

The Washington Post recently installed a new high-tech system that includes Caller ID in all departments. It was a management decision that took many reporters by surprise. In fact, many news staffers didn’t realize Caller ID was on-line until it became the topic of at least one newspaper article and a television interview.

“We’d had it for a month and a half when the TV reporter first called me,” said Post religion and ethics writer Laura Stepp, “And I said ‘Oh! We have Caller ID?’” Stepp added that writers with whom she’s spoken are not really concerned about it.

But when outside reporters raised questions, managing editor Leonard Downie, Jr. decided to have some in-house discussion about Caller ID. A meeting of editors and reporters produced no ethical quandaries and, so far, no staffers have brought any problems to his attention. It was generally agreed that, controversial or not, Caller ID is becoming part of the American telephone landscape. “We are not going to be unusual in having it,” said Downie, “People are going to get used to it.”

Downie said anonymous sources are not threatened by the system. Most tipsters call in on the Post’s main line, he said, and once that call is transferred to the reporter, the caller’s number is gone, having been replaced by the number of the phone that performed the transfer.

In case some calls are made directly to specific extensions, Post reporters have been instructed to inform the would-be anonymous source that his or her telephone number is showing up on their computer screens.

“We’re not about to seize on Caller ID as some way of exposing peoples’ identities to the outside world,” said Downie. He adds that, long before there was Caller ID, sources would use pay phones because they were afraid the calls would be traced somehow. Downie said the phone company publicizes a way callers can block the function.

As of the end of April, the Post had not yet informed its readers of the new system. Media writer Howard Kurtz says he’ll probably write about it in the near future, although he considers the idea of a breach in confidentiality a “phony issue.”

“It doesn’t seem to be some huge civil liberties issue,” said Kurtz, “I guess I don’t see it as quite as earthshaking as some people.”