To threaten journalists for doing their jobs is the very definition of governmental overreach. Today Gov. Mike Parson announced that he intends to prosecute the reporters of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for uncovering a potentially disastrous security flaw in the state’s web infrastructure. This gesture goes beyond mere overreach, to create a chilling effect discouraging journalists and watchdog groups from doing their own civic duties for fear of criminal prosecution.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics calls upon members of our profession to seek the truth and report it. As part of that obligation, we “recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government.” That is absolutely what the Post-Dispatch did when it determined that the coding of a Missouri state government website had exposed more than 100,000 Social Security numbers for schoolteachers and other public servants.
But the Code also requires judgment in the dissemination of that information. We must always “balance the public’s need for information and government accountability against the potential for harm,” according to the Code. In our opinion, that is exactly what the Post-Dispatch did when it chose to inform the appropriate state agencies of the database flaw and withhold publication until it had been corrected, so that the report did not put those employees’ financial security at further risk.
The Post-Dispatch’s ethics and professionalism minimized the state’s potential liability for such a massive breach of employee confidentiality. One would think that the state would be grateful for such deft, ethical handling of the problem.
Instead, the state has issued public statements minimizing the exposure, blaming the reporters as if they created it. Now the governor is threatening to investigate and prosecute the journalists as hackers instead of investigating the people who allowed this error in the first place.
“It is disturbing, to say the least, that the governor’s response to this potentially catastrophic exposure was to shoot the messenger,” said St. Louis SPJ chapter president Elizabeth Donald. “Blaming the press for uncovering government missteps may have become a national pastime, but in this case, the journalists involved actually saved the state from a disastrous and costly breach. Covering the state’s embarrassment with threats of prosecution is unworthy of a governor sworn to uphold the Constitution.”
The independent investigative power of the press is integral to a democracy that functions with its government as an open book that any of its citizens may read. Punitive prosecution and threats from on high stand in direct opposition to open government and the First Amendment of the United States. We call on Gov. Parson to address his efforts to ensure the safety of his employees’ personal information and withdraw his baseless accusations against the journalists holding him to his duty.
The St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists