The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case of two journalists who face prison time for not revealing their sources to federal investigators has caused considerable concern in America's newsrooms. The issue has far broader implications than for journalists. It affects all Americans who value serious news coverage.
In this case, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller were held in contempt of court last fall, reported Editor and Publisher, "for failing to disclose who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame."
"Journalists simply cannot do their jobs without being able to commit to sources that they won't be identified," said Ms. Miller, in a statement. "Such protection is critical to the free flow of information in a democracy."
Although every state except for Wyoming has a shield law protecting journalists' ability to shield their sources from investigators, this case was pushed ahead by the federal government, which said that those state laws do not protect reporters in cases of national security.
A federal shield bill was introduced in Congress earlier this year. Freedom Communications, the parent company of The Orange County Register, supports the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rick Boucher, D-Va. It would provide an absolute privilege to protect sources' confidentiality, but a more limited privilege for the information, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A big question is who the "privilege" applies to - just professional journalists, or anyone who fills the role of a journalist, such as bloggers. In our view, it's best to cast a fairly broad net, protecting those who serve in a reporting role rather than just traditional reporters.
The bill seems to achieve that purpose. "News media is broadly defined as a newspaper, a magazine, a journal or other periodical, radio, television, press associations, news agencies, wire services, or 'any printed, photographic, mechanical, or electronic means of disseminating news or information to the public,'" reported RCFP. "The last provision makes clear that Web-only news sites would be covered."
Given the court's decision, this legislation should move forward quickly, or else many important stories will not be covered lest sources be reluctant to give out information and reporters be reluctant to collect it, knowing that it could lead to jail time.