Reporters can’t break a major news story without sources, and people will not come forth with privileged information if they are afraid that their identity will be revealed. That is why a shield law needs to be implemented.
Currently, 31 states have shield laws—legislation that protects reporters from being forced to reveal their sources in legal proceedings—but there is no federal law, so journalists in federal court cases can be threatened with imprisonment if they do not divulge the identities of their confidential sources.
Each of the last three years, legislation has been written in Congress for a federal shield law, but it has never been put to a vote.
It is vital to the future of the United States that a federal shield law is passed. Journalists are not the only people that will reap the benefits of this legislation; it will affect ordinary American citizens as well.
People cannot be afraid to divulge information to reporters if it could have an impact on other people’s lives, but without a federal law protecting journalists, some people with valuable information are probably reluctant to come forth, fearing that a judge will force their identities to be revealed.
We have seen some reporters go to jail to protect the identity of confidential sources. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams from the San Francisco Chronicle were both held in contempt of court for not revealing the name of the person who leaked grand jury testimony during the BALCO proceedings.
This should not happen. Reporters should not be faced with a choice of breaking confidentiality or imprisonment. One day, a journalist might choose to give up the identity of a source to avoid jail time, and the moment that this happens, potential sources for stories all over the country will stay quiet out of fear that their confidentiality will also be breached.
If William Mark Felt, also known as “Deep Throat,” was afraid that his identity would be released to the public, he might not have given Woodward and Bernstein information involving the infamous Watergate scandal. Felt, a former FBI agent, trusted the Washington Post reporters to keep his identity a secret, and the United States was dramatically impacted as a result.
Woodward and Bernstein would not have been able to uncover the Watergate scandal if Felt had not come forth with information, and despite the lack of a federal shield law, Felt knew that he would remain anonymous.
But other people are not as trusting as Felt. Without the assurance of absolute anonymity, some people involved in horrible scandals will not come forward.
A federal shield law would provide that assurance and augment the news.
A good journalist will never reveal confidential sources, even if it means an extended period behind bars, but the First Amendment should protect them from that fate.
“Freedom of the press” is a very vague term that apparently does not apply here. That is why there needs to be a federal shield law; there should be no room for doubt whether or not a reporter is trustworthy.
Congress needs to step up and propose a federal shield law because it will benefit everyone in the country: the reporters, the sources that are coming forward, and, most importantly, all Americans that read the news.