- Grove City, Pennsylvania


March 12, 2014

Protecting reporters and the right to know

If it had been solely up to government officials at the time, how much do you think Americans would have learned about the Watergate break-in and the White House cover-up that followed? Maybe nothing.

It took a government insider who was willing to talk to reporters as an unnamed “source” — a source who became famously known as “Deep Throat” — to break the case open. The rest is history.

But it’s history that never would have been written had those young Washington Post reporters relied on official press releases from government agencies to get answers to their questions. Indeed, reporters covering all levels of government wouldn’t have much “news” to report if they relied entirely on official government mouthpieces — at least not much that’s very revealing or of great relevance to the public.

And so reporters often rely on “sources” to get the real news. Sometimes those reports reveal sensitive, if not secret, information. The folks who make the disclosures could face consequences if their identity were revealed, including job loss and criminal prosecution.

Which is why reporters promise not to reveal their sources.

It’s a promise they should be able to keep, at least when national security isn’t at stake or unless disclosing a source would prevent an act of terrorism.

But the law is not on the side of reporters. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled a journalist does not have a First Amendment right to refuse to testify before a grand jury about a confidential source unless there is proof the government is acting in bad faith. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Ever since, judges have struggled to apply the ruling in a way that would shield reporters from disclosing their sources.

It’s why reporters have faced threats of prosecution in both criminal and civil cases for refusing to answer questions about a source. In fact, some have gone to jail.

Our interest here is not just in protecting reporters and expanding the reach of whatever media they represent; our concern is the free flow of information and the impact on the public if information is withheld or delivered solely thorough government channels. Honestly, how much government corruption would be uncovered by government officials? Little, if any.

Fortunately, legislation to protect reporters is in the works. The U.S. Senate will soon consider a federal shield law passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. Said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., of the bill: “This legislation ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive.”

It’s the kind of journalism that keeps government honest — at least more honest than if nobody were watching and telling reporters what they saw.

Published March 1, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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