Let’s be clear on the subject of keeping sources confidential: Journalists don’t like doing it, and their editors absolutely hate it.
In fact, everyone connected with news reporting would prefer to always attribute information to the people who provide it. Stories are stronger when sources agree to attach their names to allegations.
But the reality is that sometimes sources face retaliation – anything from getting fired to getting killed – if their names become known. Sometimes protecting sources’ identities is the only way important information can come to light. And that’s why journalists have been willing to go to jail – to protect their sources and the principle of confidentiality.
Although most states, including Washington, have shield laws, no overarching federal law protects journalists who refuse to divulge sources – an important consideration when coverage crosses state lines or pertains to cases in federal court.
Congress has considered federal shield law legislation in the past, but it’s never passed the Senate. This may be the year it happens. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, supports the Free Flow of Information Act. It has bipartisan support from Democratic Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. And last year on the campaign trail, Barack Obama said he would sign shield law legislation if he were elected.
Between now and the time the bill lands on Obama’s desk, efforts will be made to weaken its provisions. The Senate should resist those efforts; the legislation provides appropriate balance between national security concerns and the public’s right to know.
That bears repeating: the right to know. It’s for all citizens, not just journalists. Government serves best when citizens are well informed, and journalists are better equipped to provide that information if they aren’t faced with being imprisoned or bankrupted for doing it. It’s time to pass a federal shield law.