Thursday, July 21, 2005

Reporters Work Better Out of Jail

So the Senate Judiciary committee is considering a federal shield law for reporters that would let reporters protect confidential sources. A similar bill is starting to percolate through the House. Honestly, I'm not sure of the specifics, which seem in flux at the moment anyhow. In general, though, it sounds like a great idea to me.

Reporters these days tend to overuse confidential sources--in large part because the White House will often let, say, State Department officials brief reporters but refuse to let reporters quote the briefer by name (hence all the "a high-ranking administration official" references you hear). But for obvious reasons a legitimate confidential source can be crucial to building a story, particularly a corruption story (public or private sector). If the government can force reporters into naming whistle-blowers, then people will stop blowing whistles. And one of the major reasons for the First Amendment protection of the free press is to allow the people to publicly discuss what the government is actually doing. Sure, the shield probably shouldn't be absolute; the government does have legitimate national security interests to protect sometimes, and it might not always be a good idea to debate specifics about, say, nuclear warhead schematics in the newspapers or even in open court. But a robust general shield law--instead of the irregular and Byzantine patchwork of local and state laws now in place--could carve out those exceptions while still protecting reporters.

Anyhow, the shield laws in the House and Senate sound good and might have enough support to pass, but these are the sort of bills that Congresspeople will vote for only if constituents press them. So maybe read an article or two on the laws, and if they strike you as a good idea, send a short paragraph to your Congressfolk saying so.

FYI--Mike has a good explanation of the sorts of confidentiality that reporters usually engage in below ("What Off the Record Means to Me").


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