Journalists need legal protections

The U.S. House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly passed a bill protecting journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. This federal "shield law" is long overdue, and the Senate should add its stamp of approval.

A similar bill has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President Bush has hinted he will veto the measure should it pass both houses. The House vote was more than large enough to override a veto; Senate leaders from both parties should push for a veto-proof majority from their members as well.

Most states have shield laws on the books — Oregon's was adopted in 1973 — but federal law has never protected journalists from subpoenas designed to force them to name sources who provide them with crucial information. This protection is important because sometimes the only way a journalist can obtain information revealing wrongdoing is to promise to protect the source's identity.

That's not to say that reporters should promise confidentiality to anyone who asks. Anonymous sources are used too often, especially at the national level, and that overuse can damage the credibility of news organizations.

But many major stories revealing information the public needs to know would have been impossible without confidential sources. The Enron scandal, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the use of steroids in Major League Baseball and the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are recent examples.

More and more often, prosecutors are turning to journalists first to identify government officials accused of leaking classified information. If this information was classified for the right reasons — the legitimate protection of national security, for instance — this would not be of great concern. In fact, the shield law legislation provides exceptions to the protection of journalists when the leaked information has or will cause significant harm to national security.

But the reality is that millions of documents are classified every year, many of them containing information that poses no threat to the nation but that could prove embarrassing to the government. Sources within the government are understandably reluctant to reveal such information to reporters if they think government lawyers can force reporters to give up their names.

The shield law legislation passed the House 328-21. The entire Oregon delegation voted in favor. Second District Rep. Greg Walden, a graduate of the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, was one of the bill's original co-sponsors.

Government is more likely to function in the public interest when the public knows what the government is up to. The more we allow government to operate in secret, the less control we have over what it does in our name.

Protecting journalists who work to reveal wrongdoing protects the public interest.

Share This Story