Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Passage of federal shield law not a boon for student journalists

Making the rounds today is news that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a federal shield law that will protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources in most instances.

While this certainly is a major victory for the First Amendment and journalists in general, the law doesn't give student journalists around the country the same protection it gives their commercial counterparts. According to the Washington Post, the law restricts protection to "people who earn a significant portion of their livelihoods as journalists."

Washington passed its own shield law last May which is much broader in terms of its protection of journalists, but is a bit unclear with regards to student journalists. The RCW defines "news media" that are protected in this way:

"Any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including, but not limited to, print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, internet, or electronic distribution."

The implication is that it's protecting those who make a living collecting and disseminating news, but it's not nearly as explicit in that regard as the federal bill. Are student journalists in "regular business" of gathering and disseminating news? Sure, every three to four weeks. Would it stand up in court? Who knows.

The moral for student journalists? Be careful. It's likely that it will take a court case to decide whether this RCW applies to student journalists, so weigh with great caution whether you want to promise anonymity to a source. Here are two tips:
  1. Ask yourself how far you're willing to go to protect your source. If you promise anonymity, you need to keep your promise. Will police agencies be running around trying to bully student journalists? Probably not. But it's happened before. You need to know that it's a possibility, and that you could end up in court. If that scares you, don't promise anonymity. That simple.
  2. If you promise anonymity, don't reveal the source to ANYONE. Not your friends, not your editor, not your adviser. This is the practice of commercial journalists. Your friends and editors might not be as strong as you, since they didn't make the promise. And your adviser plays by different rules; they answer to their principal and school board, and might have a legal obligation to reveal information.
So there you have it. The water is still muddy, but today is a hugely awesome day for journalism.