Albright: How Leaks Work

Jun 21, 2017

Every time I hear the word “leak,” as in “surreptitiously disclosing information,” I cringe. It’s not that I oppose the practice itself - as a former reporter, I occasionally relied on leaks to start stories, or get facts. But lately, “leaking” information has taken on a negative connotation it shouldn’t have.

Used pejoratively, it conjures up a lazy reporter just waiting, tongue hanging out, for a drip to drop from a faucet, that if all were right in the world, would be shut up tight.

But that’s not really how leaks work in the news business. To pry valuable information from someone who asks for anonymity, perhaps to protect a job or even personal safety, a reporter must typically work long and hard to find and cultivate that source, to win trust, and to gather other information that puts that information in context.

As for the source, the decision to share a secret rarely comes easily, and often takes courage.

According to Megan Garber’s recent article in The Atlantic, leaking is nothing new. In 1773, she writes, Ben Franklin got hold of letters written by the royally appointed governor of Massachusetts showing that the governor misled the English Parliament to rally support for a military buildup in the colonies.

In that case, I would say, leaking was patriotic. It still may be today, as long as it doesn’t compromise national security. In fact, there may be times, as in 1773, when NOT revealing a fact to the press would be unpatriotic.

Which is why I like the way the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to leak out: to transpire or become known in spite of efforts of concealment.” Reporters who do their jobs, despite efforts to conceal what people need to know, should be praised, not pilloried.

So when I hear talk, or tweets, about “illegal leaks” of meetings during which the leakers legally took notes, I want to scream, “That’s called freedom of speech. It’s what the founding fathers fought for.”

I know there’s no way to delete the word “leak” from everyday usage. But instead of visualizing someone doing something wrong, as in turning on a faucet that should stay off, or casually catching a drip that shouldn’t be dripping, how about picturing Ben Franklin putting in an all-nighter at his printing press? If that’s a leak, I’m all for a flood.