U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Mississippi outlet ordered to give confidential source information to court

Incident Details


A portion of a May 20, 2024, order by a Mississippi circuit court demanding nonprofit news outlet Mississippi Today turn over privileged documents from a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a state welfare scandal.

May 20, 2024

Mississippi Today was ordered on May 20, 2024, to turn over confidential source information to a circuit court in a defamation case brought by the former governor over the watchdog’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation.

The nonprofit news outlet has appealed the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court and asked it to rule on “reporter’s privilege,” which protects journalists from revealing their sources. In a June op-ed for The New York Times, Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau wrote that no state appellate courts have ruled on the privilege and Mississippi is one of eight states that lacks a formal shield law.

“We hope the order from the court will lead to the establishment of reporter’s privilege for the first time in Mississippi’s history,” Ganucheau said in an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Ganucheau called Mississippi an outlier but added that “we hope this appeal is taken up by the Supreme Court and the justices guarantee these First Amendment protections for all Mississippi journalists. Importantly, these protections aren’t in place only for journalists; they’re in place for every citizen.”

Mississippi Today has also filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit stems from characterizations of former Gov. Phil Bryant after the paper published its series “The Backchannel.” The investigation, which won reporter Anna Wolfe the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, detailed the misuse of $77 million in federal welfare funds when Bryant was governor, including some funneled to pet projects of his friend and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

Eight people were later criminally charged. Bryant, who left office in 2020, has not been charged with any crimes.

Bryant’s defamation suit doesn’t question the reporting in the series, but takes issue with characterizations of its findings in a 2022 midyear impact report by Mississippi Today, the paper’s Pulitzer announcement, a talk by CEO Mary Margaret White at a journalism conference, an interview Wolfe gave with a trade publication and ongoing coverage by Mississippi Today.

As part of the suit, Bryant requested unpublished notes and confidential source information related to the series.

The Circuit Court of Madison County ordered the paper to turn over by June 6 a log of privileged information, including confidential sources for the court to examine privately. It noted that Mississippi appellate courts had “not yet recognized a First Amendment reporter's privilege which protects the refusal to disclose the identity of confidential informants.”

The circuit court said that the sources were relevant because the governor must prove that the reporters either made up a source or recklessly used a source that was unreliable.

Ganucheau said Mississippi Today turned over several documents by the June 6 deadline that the outlet’s original reporting relied on, “even though that reporting is not the basis of any of the plaintiff’s claims.” He added the statements at issue relied on previous reporting and public information, not confidential sources.

Bryant had requested far more extensive information: all communications employees of Mississippi Today have had about him for the last two years, including “emails and text messages between Anna Wolfe and sources who were a part of her investigation,” according to court documents.

Bryant filed an additional motion on June 11 requesting that Mississippi Today be held in contempt of court for not handing over all of the requested material, which it said was likely hundreds or thousands of documents.

Ganucheau and Wolfe were added as defendants to the lawsuit, which originally named Mississippi Today and White, the CEO.

Bryant also requested a gag order to prevent Mississippi Today from publicly discussing the case after the paper published an editor’s note addressing the lawsuit.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement in support of Mississippi Today and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has offered legal advice and support, Ganucheau said.

“We’ve been warmly embraced by journalism rights organizations around the world, which is a testament to how seriously every journalist takes threats to the rights of a free press,” Ganucheau told the Tracker.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].