Some recent national news that got me thinking: shield laws for journalists have become a topic of conversation lately after it was discovered that the United States justice department was snooping on the records of Associated Press reporters and Fox Newsâs James Rosen, looking to silence whistleblowers.
For me, unlike most political discussions, this one isnât academic. I wonder what I would do if threatened with jail time for failing to reveal anonymous sources.
Discussions about strengthening the law (as the law currently stands, reporters donât generally have legal confidentiality protections) have largely come as an attempt by the Obama administration to distract reporters from the AP/ Rosen scandal itselfâand the first thing that should be noted is theyâre really two separate issues.
In Rosenâs case, the United States justice department asked a judge for a criminal warrant, claiming Rosen was a co-conspirator in violating national defense law because he attempted to gain information for a story. Itâs absolutely outrageous and terrifying that the government would actually criminalize investigative journalism, regardless of oneâs views on the shield law. Meanwhile, the Republican Partyâs outrage over the scandal seems hypocritical due to their relative silence in defending journalists attacked and jailed by the Bush administration.
But, politics aside, the discussion over shield laws to project journalists from revealing anonymous sources is still a valid one: do the advantages to democracy that are only obtained by a free and vigorous press outweigh the legitimate needs of government to keep some information confidential?
Thereâs actually another reason for opposing shield laws, this one made by First Amendment advocates: perhaps acknowledging the need for a shield law cedes too much to government. Given a properly expansive view of the First Amendment, they say, journalists already have all the protections they needâitâs not up to Congress to protect journalists, itâs up to the constitution.
The problem here is that itâs not at all clear that the First Amendment was ever intended to protect the anonymity of speech (the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against anonymous freedom of speech for political purposes a few years ago).
And, even as a journalist, I have mixed thoughts on anonymous sources. There are certainly legitimate uses for anonymous sources to combat an overbearing government, but too often, cowards just want to be anonymous so they can criticize somebody without being criticized back.
Ultimately, journalists probably shouldnât expect a government interested in protecting secrets to protect them instead. Good investigative journalism requires the bravery to stand up to government and the honesty to protect sources after promising them anonymity, even if youâre threatened with legal consequences.
Bravery and honesty: journalists everywhere have always needed to be committed to those two qualities above all. Any journalist who complains about that fact should probably just look for another job.