Other views from librarians

When interests of client and newsroom conflict

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. 2 (February 1991), p. 5.

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.


My feeling is that when we sell service to the outside, we have ipso facto made a contract with that person that we will not divulge the subject of their information . . . If I had done a search for someone on the Times side, I would not have told someone on the Courier side I had done it. Looking at it from that standpoint, we owe the same protection to someone from the outside. I have called people at the (Lexington) Herald-Leader and asked them for something in the library. If they had told the newsroom, we would have lost our lead. And they didn’t. There’s an unspoken agreement that librarians do not divulge reference questions from patrons, no matter who the patron is.

I don’t go to the newsroom with tips about anything. I don’t feel I have the right to do that, especially if we are selling the information. That’s even worse, in my opinion. I don’t feel that there is a loyalty to the reporter unless he already knows something, he already has an inkling of something.

At that point I would do everything but divulge the name to lead him in the right direction.

—Doris Batliner, chief librarian, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY

We intend to keep the information service away from the news operation. There will be a separate staff with nothing to do with the newsroom but it will be under the news library’s management. I think this will help us avoid some of these conflicts.

—Nancy Burris, library director, New Orleans Times-Picayune

(The Times-Picayune is in the process of establishing an information service desk.)

We have not set a firm policy yet and it is difficult. We really are betwixt and between here. We may be librarians but we’re also journalists. We are doing this as a business and we have to be fair to the client but, although I’m sure it wouldn’t be quite right, my instinct is to tell the reporter about possible tips.

As far as selecting articles, our policy is to send every article written. We will not make a selection — that is not ethical — though it does seem like a different situation if they just ask for good things like awards, positive news.

—Bob Isaacs, library director, Ft. Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel

We (news librarians) maintain confidentiality for requests from the newsroom. We should operate under the same tenets for people requesting information from the outside.

(On selection of articles) if someone were to call wanting research to support a particular point of view, you would have to negotiate with them. The fact is, we are not doing primary research, and if we are not making value judgements on the results that should eliminate any appearance of steering results.

–Anne Mintz, information services director, Forbes Inc., editor of Information Ethics, Concerns for Librarianship and the Information Industry 

(Our reference service) Bee Search is separate from the editorial library although I am in charge of it so I guess it’s not all that separate. We do (keep information requests confidential). However, we’re not obligated to under our contract with the public. We just do out of a sense of propriety.

Many of the people using our service are local politicians. They ask for information on their opponents.

We have found ourselves in a situation before in which the Bee Search librarian was talking to me about some requested information on a local utility by a councilman, and a reporter was in the library and immediately queried her as to what kind of information he was asking for. That’s when I interrupted and said we can’t give out that information . . . we have to protect them to a certain degree.

We will certainly give (clients) a copy of anything that has run in the newspaper, but if they’re asking us to do research for them, we don’t do that.

We answer their questions (and) if their question is, “I’m looking for something specific that the Bee ran on so-and-so, I think it deals with his wife and a divorce,” we’ll search for that.

(As far as sharing possible “tips” with the newsroom) if there’s any question, the Bee Search comes to me and then I make the decision. To date, nothing has been passed on, nothing’s been followed up as a story.

—George Schlukbier, library director, The Sacramento Bee

For the original article these views reference, see “The ethics of information selling.”