The ethics of information selling

Problems for library reference services

Newspaper libraries offering reference services to the public are facing tough ethical decisions about where their loyalties should lie.

By Nora Paul

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. 4.

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.


Revenue and satisfied customers. Newspapers are looking for ways to increase both. One way news libraries are trying to contribute is by offering fee-based services to the public. They are also marketing their databases and repackaging information for sale.

After years of being closed to the public, except through the mail, the Miami Herald library started a telephone research service. It has received an enthusiastic response from the public and has realized a modest profit. It has also run into some ethical dilemmas we hadn’t anticipated.

For example, a man called the information line asking for any articles on Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the controversial leader of the Temple of Love, a Black Hebrew Israelite organization. The man paid $212 for the stories.

A few days later, a reporter who had done some major pieces on Yahweh was in the library talking about how the mayor had designated a Yahweh Ben Yahweh day. I mentioned to her that someone had just asked for all the Yahweh stories. She asked who. I told her and she said, “I think he’s with the FBI — maybe they are doing an investigation on him.”

I immediately felt uncomfortable with having given the name of the person who had requested the information. Librarians are taught that information requests should be confidential. (Remember the brouhaha over the FBI’s request that librarians tell them who checked out certain books?)

On the other hand, as a news librarian with a finely-tuned news antenna, I felt bad I hadn’t passed on the lead to the reporter sooner so she could check it out. (Yahweh Ben Yahweh was arrested on several counts of murder a month later.)

Clearly, there was a conflict between the confidentiality of the client and feeding tips to the newsroom. We asked the newspaper’s lawyer for guidance. He counseled that we cannot guarantee information requests would remain confidential. If the newspaper coincidentally reported on a story someone had requested confidentially, it could put the paper in a difficult legal position. Bottom line, go ahead and pass along those tips.

Our managing editor decided that tips gleaned from public information requests should be passed along to the newsroom. If clients ask, I tell them I can’t promise confidentiality.

Librarians, as adjunct journalists, try to operate under the same ethical guidelines as our colleagues in the newsroom, including not crossing the line between observer and participator. I think we fell over that line in another case where an official from Miami Beach requested an extensive background search for articles on drugs in the workplace. We put together a package of information from a number of databases which included studies on drug testing, rehabilitation, and the impact of drugs on businesses.

A few days later a story appeared in the Herald. The lead: “By weaving in facts and figures about the dangers illegal drugs pose to the public, Miami Beach officials hope a proposed law to notify employers when their workers are arrested on drug charges will fall on the right side of the Constitution. ‘Beware the zealot that does his homework,’ said attorney . . . The new draft is stocked with references to studies and statistics that underscore the damage illegal drugs do to a community . . . .”

Those “studies and statistics” were gotten, in part, from the Herald. By providing this information, couldn’t we be perceived as taking part in policy-making?

Another situation came up that had potential for awkwardness but which does have a more clear-cut solution.

We got a call from the campaign manager of a local candidate. At first he asked for every story that had been done on his candidate’s opponent.

When he heard how many stories there were (the opponent was the incumbent) and how much it would cost him to have all the articles printed, he asked that we go through and just pick out ones that reflected badly on the incumbent.

For more about this topic, see “Other views from librarians.”

Clearly, making subjective decisions about the articles would be inappropriate. Had the incumbent heard his opponent dug up dirt on him with the help of the newspaper, the paper’s reputation for balanced reporting could have been hurt even though the incumbent could have asked for the same thing about his opponent.

The policy on this situation was easy. We will not do selections of articles on individuals but we will provide a list of citations and let the requester select the articles he wants.

Newspaper libraries considering getting into the public information business can expect situations to arise requiring a delicate balancing act between the needs of the clients and the needs of the newsroom. A lot of problems can be avoided from the outset by establishing guidelines which are known by the researchers, clients and newsroom.