The recent conviction of former White House aide Scooter Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice focused renewed attention on the subject of news leaks – the unofficial dissemination of newsworthy, politically sensitive information to the press and public. Libby’s case centered on the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, although no one was actually charged with revealing Plame’s status.
Libby’s trial drew extensive press coverage, but it has had little apparent impact on views about whether news leaks help or harm the public’s interest. Attitudes about news leaks are virtually the same now as they were in 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Currently, 42% of those who are aware of what news leaks are say they serve the public’s interest by providing Americans with information they should have; about as many (44%) believe such leaks hurt the public interest by revealing information that people should not have.
Like many of the public’s attitudes about the press, opinions about news leaks are more politicized than during the mid-1980s. In 1986, only modest differences separated the views of Republicans and Democrats as to whether news leaks help or hurt the public’s interest. Among those familiar with news leaks, 48% of Democrats said they served the public’s interest, compared with 39% of Republicans. But in the current survey, about twice as many Democrats as Republicans say leaks serve the public’s interest (53%-26%, based on those who know what a news leak is).
Notably, people who say they have heard a lot about the Libby trial have similar opinions about news leaks as those who have heard little or nothing about the case. Roughly four-in-ten (43%) of those who have heard a lot about Libby’s trial – and are familiar with news leaks – say they generally serve the public’s interest. This compares with 41% of those who are aware of how leaks occur and have heard little or nothing about the trial.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 21-25 among 1,503 adults, finds that the public’s overall familiarity with the practice of news leaks is the same as it was in 1986. Somewhat fewer say they have heard the term “news leak” (75% vs. 84% in 1986). But an identical percentage is aware that leaks happen when an official gives newsworthy information to a reporter (55%).
People who are aware of how news leaks occur generally believe that government officials who disclose sensitive information are motivated by personal, rather than political, reasons. About a quarter (26%) say officials leak information for personal advancement or to fulfill their personal agenda. This was also the top reason cited for news leaks in 1986 (33%).
About one-in-ten of those familiar with how leaks occur (12%) say officials provide information to influence or manipulate the press or public, while 11% say officials leak “for a worthy cause,” and 10% cite partisan political factors. Somewhat fewer (8%) say that officials generally leak information to the press to seek revenge against an opponent. For the most part, the motives cited for news leaks have changed little since 1986.
Government, the Press and National Security
Generally, the public takes a skeptical view of the government’s complaints about press coverage of national security issues. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the government often criticizes such stories because it is trying to cover up problems with national security; just 32% say the government believes these stories would harm national security. In 1986, opinion about government criticism of national security stories was more evenly divided: 49% said the government was trying to cover up problems with the nation’s defenses, while 39% said the government believed that the stories would hurt the nation’s defenses.
Partisan differences over the reasons for government complaints about national security stories have increased considerably over the past two decades. In 1986, 57% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans said the government often criticized stories on national security issues more because it was trying to cover up problems than because it felt such stories would harm national security. But the partisan gap has nearly doubled in the current survey, with 79% of Democrats and just 30% of Republicans now saying the government criticizes national security stories to cover up problems.