James Risen is a 59-year-old veteran journalist who has built a career telling stories to the American public that American presidents would rather not have disclosed. He and a colleague won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for revealing the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping of American citizens without warrants as part of its counterterrorism efforts. Now, under pressure from the Obama administration, Risen is facing the very real possibility of spending time in prison for keeping a promise to protect the identity of a confidential source for a story that embarrassed the CIA.

The legal battle stems from Risen’s account of a botched mission during the Clinton administration to sabotage Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In 2003, Risen learned about it from confidential sources and prepared to publish it in The New York Times, but the paper agreed not to do so after considering national security concerns expressed by President Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. Risen later broke the story in his 2006 book, “State of War.”

The case is the latest illustration of the long-standing tension between the government’s need to maintain secrets and the Jeffersonian “watchdog” mandate of American journalism to scrutinize government behavior on behalf of our democratic society. Courts have ruled that journalists have no special “privilege” when ordered by a judge to testify about things they witness or participate in – including who they get their information from. Yet judges also have acknowledged the dangerous chilling effect of going after journalists to find the sources of leaks. Such cases, wrote one judge, “exalts the interests of government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society” (Liptak, 2014).

Risen’s refusal to reveal his source can be viewed as maddening stubbornness on the part of a self-righteous, elite journalist who dangerously dismisses how government leaks of classified information can undermine national security and even threaten American lives. Yet moral psychology research suggests such judgments miss the point of the motivations of people such as Risen. Far from being oblivious to the risks entailed in their decisions, they are keenly aware of the stakes involved. Yet they have so deeply internalized a set of moral values that, when push comes to shove, they literally feel they have no choice but to manifest those values in their behavior. As Risen himself described it, prosecutors were asking him to “give up everything I believe in – or go to jail.” For Risen, that really isn’t a choice at all. The possible sacrifice and hardship attached to working as a watchdog journalist performing a public service becomes an accepted, though lamented, fact. Risen has even said he’s picked out what kinds of books to take with him if is sent to prison.

We often call examples of this behavior moral courage. Those who are most successful at integrating morality with their self-identity arguably respond to ethical challenges in ways that are different than others. To be motivated by principle in the face of daunting adversity, to persevere in a course of action despite great personal risk or hardship, to eschew expedience in the service of what is perceived to be a “right” or just cause – such behavior can be considered examples of a high degree of integration of morality into the self. “The self is progressively moralized when the objective values that one apprehends become integrated within the motivational and affective systems of personality and when these moral values guide the construction of the self-concept and one’s identity as a person,” explained Daniel Lapsley, a prominent moral psychology theorist (1996, p. 231). In other words, we successfully blend the moral with the mundane when we fully understand the compelling nature of the universal concerns of dignity, respect and justice, and when we feel “the weight of obligation” to promote these claims independent of our own personal desires, goals and preferences.

Such moral courage is not uncommon among media professionals. In a study I conducted to examine the moral reasoning and motivations of selected media “exemplars” around the country – Pulitzer Prize recipients like Risen, as well as corporate officers of public relations firms admired for their ethical leadership – the notion of moral courage quickly emerged as a recurring theme (Plaisance, 2014). Repeatedly, the media exemplars described their decisions to do what they felt was “the right thing” in terms of duty rather than choice. Once an individual embraced or internalized a moral principle, they not only felt obligated to live their lives accordingly, but the moral principle actually became intertwined with how they saw themselves. In a sense, what looks like courage actually becomes just examples of duty.

The image of the reckless, egotistical journalist prizing his story above all else is too often a convenient caricature for those unhappy with news accounts that may challenge certain ideologies. If we’re going to make intelligent judgments about behavior in media, it is important for us to recognize the moral psychology behind the motivations of media professionals.


Lapsley, D.K. (1996). Moral psychology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Liptak, A. (2014, June 2). “Supreme Court rejects appeal from Times reporter over refusal to identify source.” The New York Times, A13.

Plaisance, P.L. (2014). Virtue in media: The moral psychology of excellence in news and public relations. New York: Routledge.


James Risen

About the Author

Patrick L. Plaisance Ph.D.

Patrick Lee Plaisance, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University and is the Editor of the Journal of Media Ethics.

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