Letter: the activities of journalism must be protected
Jason Stverak, President
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
I am writing today in response to the US House of Representatives’ addition of a media shield amendment to H.R. 4660.
In the wake of recent court rulings that threaten the central ethics of journalism, the House of Representatives’ addition of a media shield amendment to H.R. 4660, a federal appropriations bill, is a step in the right direction. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)’s amendment to the 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Act would prohibit funding for the Department of Justice to force reporters to disclose confidential sources in court–protecting these reporters from harassment, subpoenas, and the threat of jail time.
The relationship between a journalist and his or her source is central to the ethical code of journalism, and 48 states have laws on the books preventing courts from ordering reporters to betraying the trust of their confidential sources. The federal government offers no such protections, however, and reporters are routinely threatened with jail time simply for doing their jobs–most recently James Risen of the New York Times.
The House’s action is a step in the right direction, and is a more promising development than other recently-proposed media shield bills, including the Free Flow of Information Act (S. 987), which is pending action in the Senate. S. 987 bill limits those protections to those who fit a very narrow and antiquated definition of a reporter–someone who has been recently employed at an established news outlet.
An effective media shield law would take into account that journalism is an act, not a profession, and protect all those who engage in the activities of journalism with the intent to publish–regardless of their employment status. This type of forward-thinking legislation would protect James Risen and every other truth-seeking reporter who builds a relationship with a confidential source, and allow for a stronger and more cohesive Fourth Estate.