Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Leaking | Taking Note

The Art of Leaking | Taking Note:

The Art of Leaking

It’s the nature of organizations and bureaucracies to close ranks, just as it’s in the DNA of reporters to want more and more information.  Add to that mix the factors of self-interest and idealism. When reporters pry, officials withhold, and secrets are leaked, the result can be high drama[1].  But are these supposed  ‘secrets’ true, half-true, or false? What are the leaker’s motives–to settle a score[2], advance his/her own career, or see justice done?  It’s up to the reporter to answer those questions before publishing anything.  In short, there is an art to leaking and to using leaks in developing a story.

This column is addressed to the three (or perhaps four) people who are now trying to send me information without compromising or revealing their identities.  Here’s the gist: your leaks so far have been overly cryptic, incomplete or just baffling, which means they aren’t helping me report the story.  The piece ends with a suggestion for more effective communication.

Leaking well is essential, while leaking poorly can have unintended consequences. I learned this lesson in 2012 while investigating Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, for the PBS series “Frontline.”  We were especially curious about the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the District’s standardized test.  Had her school principals done the erasing in order to give the new Chancellor the great gains that she had made them promise to deliver?  If that were the case, then her ‘miracle’ would be exposed as a fraud.  And if she had good reason to suspect misbehavior by adults and did nothing about it, then she herself would be exposed.

We knew that an outside expert had prepared a confidential report about the widespread erasures durin