Billings Gazette — A needed law to help uncover public information
Billings (Mont.) Gazette
May 4, 2007
Gazette staffers rarely produce news stories quoting anonymous sources. Our newspaper's policy is that such sources will be used "sparingly" and when they are used the editor or managing editor must know the unidentified source's name a
Billings (Mont.) Gazette
May 4, 2007
Gazette staffers rarely produce news stories quoting anonymous sources. Our newspaper's policy is that such sources will be used "sparingly" and when they are used the editor or managing editor must know the unidentified source's name and be "in a position to vouch for the source's credibility."
But when it comes to reporting on the federal government in Washington, D.C., anonymous sources are common and essential to telling the public what our government is doing. Even high level federal officials have demanded that their names not be attached in news reports to the public information they provide. Other sources of information about the federal government fear retribution from the federal government for speaking out. Every administration tries to control the flow of information about itself, some more than others.
The stories of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and the failure to properly care for wounded U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were only told because anonymous sources first disclosed the problems.
A legal shield for reporters
Journalists covering important national stories have long relied on promises of anonymity to provide information on the U.S. government to the people of the United States. However, no federal law spells out protections for journalists who use anonymous sources. Federal courts have interpreted shield claims differently. During the administration of George W. Bush, more than 30 reporters have been subpoenaed with demands for disclosing their sources, raising the prospect of choosing between keeping their word as a journalist or going to jail.
On Wednesday, Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee recognized the importance and the responsibility of journalists in reporting significant public issue stories with anonymous sources. Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.; Reps. Howard Coble, R-N.C.; Richard Boucher, D-Va.; Mike Pence, R-Ind.; John Yarmuth, D-Ky; and David Weldon, R-Fla., introduced the "Free Flow of Information Act." An identical measure introduced by Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., provides a qualified reporter's privilege that would require the government to demonstrate that the public interest in having a reporter testify outweighs the public interest in protecting similar sources in the future.
With all its flaws and limitations, journalism remains crucial to our free and open American society. People don't always like what they read or hear in the news. But consider the alternative: hearing nothing but what government decides to tell us.
As Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said: "From Watergate to stories about warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens, reporters have relied on anonymous sources to report on important stories about government behavior and corporate wrongdoing."
Support bipartisan legislation
The Free Flow of Information Act would maintain that balance between allowing journalists to report stories the government doesn't want told and requiring that journalists be responsible for their use of anonymous sources.
We call on all members of Montana and Wyoming's congressional delegations to lend their support to this bipartisan legislation. People in our states need to know what's happening in Washington.