Maintaining the secrecy of confidential sources may be easier for journalists now that a new federal shield law has been passed.
The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, the federal shield law bill to protect journalists' right to defend the confidentiality of their sources against federal prosecution, passed Oct. 16 in the House of Representatives.
With a 398-21 vote in the House, the shield law bill also has a version that was approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 4. The bipartisan bills, H.R. 2102 and S. 2035, are sponsored by Representatives Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), according to Christine Tatum, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Howard Kleiman, Miami University mass communications professor and Oxford-based coordinator of the Inside Washington program, said Congress has considered the possibility of shield laws for several years.
"This is the closest we've ever come to passing the bill," Kleiman said, prior the bill's passing. "A federal shield law is important for both journalists and the public. If journalists do a better job, then the public benefits."
Kleiman said 33 states, including Ohio, and the District of Columbia, have some degree of statue or common law to protect the privilege of journalists to conceal their sources.
Proponents of the law say the bill is necessary to protect reporters when printing sensitive information. This would not be possible without promising confidentiality to the source. The opposition contends the use of anonymous sources is a detriment to law enforcement actions and could threaten national security.
A major area of discussion concerning the shield law is the First Amendment and the boundaries of the freedom of the press.
According to Hagit Limor, investigative reporter for WCPO-TV and president of the Cincinnati chapter of SPJ, denying freedom of anonymous sources to responsible journalism is a breach of the First Amendment.
"It's a shame we need a law for what seems to be a clear extension of the First Amendment and the duty of the Fourth Estate," Limor said. "It is the job of journalists to hold accountable the three branches of government."
Patti Newberry, Miami University journalism lecturer and moderator for Miami's SPJ chapter, echoed Limor's sentiments.
"Most journalists would agree that anonymous sources are to be used sparingly in extreme conditions," Newberry said. "Anonymity still requires multiple verifications to live up to the standards of responsible journalism."
Prior to the passage of the federal shield law, a clear definition of a journalist was required, according to Kleiman. The bill defines journalism as the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."
Kleiman said the definition falls short of including online bloggers or freelance writers; the definition is a reasonable compromise that focuses on people who make a living on journalism.
Kleiman further added that the bill has been tweaked and mended to address concerns about national security.
"President (George) Bush has a right to be concerned about security," Kleiman said. "The bill, however, has been written with revisions that make it clear when the government can make a reasonable case for national security."
The revisions deem such situations when journalists must reveal their sources as instances to prevent "imminent and actual harm" to national security or "imminent death or significant bodily harm to indivduals."
According to Newberry, famous investigative cases such as Watergate could not have been done without the use of anonymous sources.
"The Washington Post could not have done as good of a job if the journalists had to constantly look over their shoulders to avoid being subpoenaed," Newberry said.
To promote the shield law, Jenna Hamilton, a Miami University junior and president of Miami's SPJ chapter, said her organization distributed fliers at the Associated Student Government voter registration drive that outlined the importance of the law for journalists, the conflict surrounding it and the support for the law.
Hamilton said she also posted information to keep students updated on the most current updates concerning the bill.
"The law is not an attempt to permit anonymous sources, no questions asked," Hamilton said. "It focuses on what is imperative to journalism-getting information."
Newberry also said the law does not disregard the responsible use of sources.
"I don't think the bill will change practices in the industry," Newberry said. "We won't see a flood of anonymous sources just because there is a shield law."
Kleiman said while no law is perfect, the federal shield law would benefit all parties involved.
"Anything that colors the press' ability to report news affects the entire public," he said.
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© 2007 The Miami Student via U-WIRE