As journalists, we realize the importance of confidentiality to protect sources who may experience grave consequences for telling the truth -- yet the truth is still told.
But sometimes, the issue of confidentiality is used as a tool to obscure the truth rather than to protect those who face harm or retribution if their name becomes public knowledge.
Child Protective Services, town government, and even the school district have attempted to dodge accountability by playing the confidentiality card when it benefits them or allows them an escape route to avoid tough questions.
A recent example is our story about a local foster mother's battle with CPS, an agency that has been highly scrutinized in the national media for negligent actions that harmed the children they were supposed to protect.
Our attempts to get comments, even on the general operations of the agency, were met with the robotic retort, "We are unable to comment due to confidentiality."
A story often exposes something that is uncomplimentary -- a system that is broken, favoritism, double standards -- and those who need to be held accountable are often the focus. Although it may look responsible and heroic to cite a confidentiality concern, the motivation is quite transparent.
Journalists are obligated to tell both sides of a story. This can be nearly impossible when we run into a wall of silence which could potentially put the entire story in jeopardy as we strive to be impartial.
Perhaps it is the hope of those who erect those walls under the guise of confidentiality, that we will throw up our arms and sit on a story until someone comes forth to offer another comment besides "no comment."
Yet it remains our responsibility to tell a story even when the powers that be would prefer it be shelved. Both sides are given the opportunity to speak and if one side refuses to comment, even at a theoretical level which would not breech confidentiality, then it is ludicrous to blame the newspaper for an appearance of partiality.
There are many ways to address an issue without violating confidentiality. One can speak in the abstract, change a name, use theoretical examples -- get creative, but don't run for cover.
Confidentiality primarily protects those who are powerless. It should not serve as a hiding place for the powerful who simply don't care to answer to the public.