Indiana has one of the nation’s best shield laws – measures that recognize the right of journalists to protect anonymous sources. Indeed, most states recognize that right through legislation or established court rulings. But the federal government doesn’t.
Why, you may ask, is that a concern? Why, in fact, do the media – which are forever demanding transparency from government officials – worry about the ability to keep sources secret in the first place?
The need for a shield law is intertwined with the role of the media, the foundations of our system of government and the basics of human nature.
The people who created American democracy wanted a government that was answerable to the people. Thus, they knew they had to ensure that the people had access to the truth about what those who had been chosen to represent them were doing.
But those who wrote our government’s founding documents understood human nature. No matter how noble the ideals of officeholders and government officials might be, it was unreal- istic to depend on them always to report accurately and objectively on their own policies and actions.
Thus, the First Amendment entrusted the media with a crucial role: keeping citizens informed about, and being a watchdog on, the workings of their government.
Most often, that involves reporters sitting through governmental meetings, reading documents and asking officials on-the-record questions. But for journalists to fulfill their watchdog role, they also must be able to receive and verify information from people who can’t, for a variety of reasons, allow themselves to be identified.
Many are familiar with the way the two reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal were aided by a government source known at the time only as Deep Throat. Most stories that involve anonymous sources are not that dramatic or far-reaching.
But without anonymous sources playing some role, many revelations about government misconduct would never see the light of day. And a reporter whose sources become of interest to a federal inquiry could face a stark choice: give up that source’s name or go to jail.
The lack of a federal shield law plays out in general disrespect for the relationship between government and the media. Last year, for instance, it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice had secretly seized the records of some Associated Press office phones as well as of some reporters’ home telephones and cell phones.
In this instance, the government apparently was trying to find out who had leaked a 2012 story about the foiling of an al-Qaida plot to blow up an airliner. Rights often conflict, and few would argue that the right to protect sources ought to be absolute. Should a legitimate national security inquiry supersede the need to respect journalists’ sources? Good arguments could be made either way.
In the absence of a shield law, courts and officials seem not to feel obligated to weigh conflicting rights and roles. The result in this case was an inquiry that probably revealed sources not for one story but for many.
The government’s action, AP’s president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt said at the time, sent a message that if you talk to the press, we’re going to go after you. Longtime sources, Pruitt said, became wary of speaking to reporters on the phone, and some were even reluctant to meet with them personally.
Pruitt said he fears that the result of such actions will be that the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know.
Bills to give journalists a qualified right to shield their sources have been in Congress before. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was a strong sponsor for such a measure when he was in the U.S. House.
The Free Flow of Information Act, S. 987, was passed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last fall and could be before the full Senate this year.
Both parties could come together to pass this bill, and both of Indiana’s senators, Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Dan Coats, should lead the way.