Should there be a federal Shield Law for journalists?

Posted by Lizzie Pine
Photo by Jeremy Keith

Lawyers and their clients, doctors and patients, priests and sinners – all are confidentiality relationships protected by law.

But journalists and their sources? Not quite.

While some states (not Iowa) have Shield Laws, there is no federal law to allow journalists to not reveal their sources when questioned. However, a proposition is in motion.

The Free Flow of Information Act, if enacted, would let journalists keep information confidential. Anonymous informers would be free to talk to journalists without fear of being prosecuted. Reporters would have more sources and would be able to dig deeper into stories is people weren’t afraid of the consequences of disclosing information.

The only way courts could have access to the private details would be if the federal government proved to judges that the need for information was greater than the need for confidentiality.

Many journalists and press organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, want this bill passed.

This law has other advantages: It could help prosecute the people behind WikiLeaks.

Right now, journalists must give courts any information they have, if needed, or pay fines or spend time in jail. The courts use this information to prosecute people for wrongdoing, possibly making the nation safer.

In return, people don’t trust journalists as much if there is the threat of being prosecuted for what they say.

Should journalists be allowed to keep sources and information confidential by law? Or should they have to give up their sources at the risk of people not entrusting them with new information?

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9 responses to “Should there be a federal Shield Law for journalists?

  1. I think this bill, if passed, would be both good and bad for journalism. Yes, we would be able to expose deeper information in stories, but without a source, how would readers know what’s credible and what’s not? Fact checking would be out the window.

  2. I agree with Jessica that there are both good and bad aspects to this bill. I remember reading a story a few years back about some journalist that was jailed after refusing to reveal her sources in order to protect them. I always thought this was completely ridiculous and that the journalist was very commendable for ensuring the confidentiality of her sources at a great personal risk to herself.
    However, I can also see how this law would allow for stories that are less than credible to be published and could cause distrust from readers in a different way.

  3. I agree with the comments above. Excellent points.
    It would be great if there was a law protecting journalists and their sources, however, it would be every reporter’s responsibility to use the law wisely. This means attribute and identify sources when necessary (as is done now) but know that if it is a case that demands the use of an anonymous source, it’s OK to push dig deeper and let the source know that they are protected and that the reporter will not be required to give up their name.

  4. I support this bill. I don’t think that having such a law in place would encourage more anonymous sources, and thus, less credible stories, because journalists don’t want that either. Journalists want to be trusted. I think most of us understand that we should only use anonymous sources in extreme cases. I think, then, this law could only enhance the relationship between sources and reporters, creating more trust and allowing for better stories.

  5. I agree that law this law would be beneficial. Journalists desire to do their job correctly, and part of that job is to protect sources. This law would allow trust to grow. I believe sources would no longer fear prosecution. Sources would tell the truth, the mission behind journalism. Legalism interferes with that mission. However, dangers can come, too. Journalists should not exploit this law. Anonymous sources are to be used in rare cases. And, ethics are important always.

  6. But not all journalists are saints. I hate reading a story when the quoted source is anonymous, because I immediately question the credibility of the source. I understand it happens, but if more of it were to happen, how do we know what to believe? What if it’s just news services rushing to break a story first? Not saying an increase in anonymous sources would happen if the bill was passed, just another thought to consider

  7. Good point about anonymous sources, Matt. They aren’t credible at all. Hopefully this issue doesn’t even come up that often because journalists should be using quotable, credible people.

  8. Fact checking would be out the window like Jessica says. There would be a lot more information but readers would not be sure what to believe.

  9. Federal shield laws that benefit having anonymous sources would irk me. It would end up cheapening the work of other reporters that actually do their job and get credible sources. It would allow the anonymous sources to get by and lessen the work of all journalists in general. Everyone above said that they don’t like anonymous sources, I think we can all agree on that as journalists. I can only imagine how far down our field would slip.

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