Media shield law should protect all forms of journalism

Many journalists involved in federal cases may no longer have to answer this question: Would I be willing to go to prison to protect a source for my story?

A federal shield law passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, and the legislation is now headed to the full Senate. This is the first hurdle in legally protecting confidential sources, which has been difficult for senators to clear because a similar bill was defeated in 2005 and stalled in 2009.

The Free Flow of Information Act first and foremost addresses what every shield law should: It protects journalists from being forced to reveal sources who requested to remain anonymous or who requested confidentiality. It protects journalists from choosing between jail time and breaking an agreement between the journalist and source. And most importantly, it protects the act of journalism during a time when accessibility to other mediums of sharing information becomes more and more prevalent.

As a news organization and as journalists, we support the bill. Even despite the bill’s introduction as a result of pressure from the Obama administration, which has been marred by a series of leaks such as the Department of Justice’s acquisition of phone records from The Associated Press’ and FOX News’.

But there’s still work to be done. The Free Flow of Information Act limits what types of journalists are protected by and qualify under the law.

Obviously, when national security matters are at stake, journalist or not, you will more than likely be forced under a court of law to reveal your information. This act, however, has finally addressed the question that committee members have contemplated for far too long.

Who is a journalist?

The easy answer is that a journalist is a writer whose byline is next to a story. Or the reporter who is at the crime scene for a local news channel.

But looking beyond those vague definitions is what many senators have failed to do.

The proposed version doesn’t explicitly address bloggers, citizen reporters and some freelance journalists. Senators are missing the point here: A journalist isn’t defined by his or her employment status. It’s about committing to the act of journalism, or performing the service of informing fellow citizens, which many people have the opportunity to do.

Consider a whistleblower revealing documents that show how money is used in an organization. How is that different from a journalist’s mission?

In the end, both whistleblowers and journalists are enlightening the public on the mishaps of an organization, although in different manners.

Sure, it’s not ideal to open up the protection to the masses. But a definition that better encompasses nontraditional journalists needs to be set if the law is expected to function properly and protect, for example, bloggers and freelance journalists. As we’ve seen before, even a federal shield law — favoring traditional journalists — will bring a new set of questions.