Thursday, December 3, 2009

Federal Shield Law Under Attack

I am a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and I have been getting a numerous amount of emails in my inbox about the Shield Law -- a legislation and 'privelege' of sorts for journalists that protects us from being forced to reveal an anonymous source's information that we have collected during our newsgathering. For quite some time now, the Federal Shield Law has been under attack by state senators and other government officials, trying to either get rid of the legislation entirely or (recently) make it apply only to 'salaried employess or independent contractors of news organizations". Freelance writers, students (like myself), and online journalists would not be protected.

As I did some more research about the origins and benefits of the Shield Law, the SPJ website made some very interesting points. I know that some parts of the government think that it is unfair for journalists to have so many confidential sources, but we do have a purpose. As the SPJ website states, it was anonymous sources that helped to reveal the culprits of the Watergate scandal. It was multiple anonymous sources that helped clear up debates about what is going on over in Iraq. In some cases, it is necessary to keep our sources confidential. If not for their own lives and family's sake, for our own.

I have said it many times and I will say it again; being a journalist is dangerous. Investigative reporting can be rewarding at times, but it can also put us in some serious sticky situations. Without the Shield Law, journalists would be forced to reveal their sources in court if asked to do so; no matter the consequences. It makes me wonder how long the government has actually thought about the consequences -- what taking away this legislation would be like for the journalists who are telling their families, friends, readers, etc. about the news that they really need to know.

For example, let's say you see a murder occur somewhere. Let's say...someone attempts and succeeds at assassinating a senator or congressman and you witness the entire thing. Naturally (if not too much in shock) you take a photo, video, have some sort of documented proof. You know that you can't keep it inside; you have to tell someone. So you tell me. You tell me the entire story, show me or give me your proof and you ask to remain anonymous for the sake of your own life and your family's life and your friends' lives, keeping them out of danger. I tell you that I promise to keep your name, whereabouts, etc. confidential. I write the story. Obviously, I would get called into court to state again (even though I already wrote a story on it) what you told me about the assassination. But, without the Shield Law, I would be forced to tell the court who you are or risk the dire consequences...most likely jail or prison time for not cooperating. And, because i told you I would keep you safe, I would go to jail for you. I wouldn't even think twice about it. But, if we can protect our legislation...our 'privelege' to keep our sources safe, all of that could possibly be avoided.

SPJ is trying to keep every journalist aware of ever step that is being taken for and against the Shield Law, but they can only do so much on their own. I support the Shield Law, and if you are a journalist I am sure you do as well, but we can't do this alone. A great deal of awareness needs to be brought to the table to secure our anonymous sources and our journalists. 49 states (excluding Wyoming) have some sort of Shield Law to protect the anonymous source and the journalist. Taking away this legislation could mean someone's life. I know that sounds...overdramatic...but in the end of the's not. You can give two shits about protecting journalists, but you should care about protecting our sources. Some cases would still be mysteries without them.


  1. Well, it sounds like in a situatioon as serious as murder, I would hope the source would go to the police instead of a journalist. But I understand your point. The law needs to be more specific and include all journaists and writers. I hope that you are never in a situation as serious as your scenario!

  2. Thank you for your post Corrine. And yes, some would hope that the source would go to the police first, but in these cases it is possible that some sources would not feel safe telling the police because the only thing they can do is put you in a witness protection program if, and only if, you have had some sort of threat against your life because of the information you know. Otherwise, they will not keep your information confidential. So, in that case, a person might trust a journalist before they trust a cop.

  3. That's true, I am the first person to admit my disdain for the police.