Dan Lawton : Journalist

Who Are the Real Journalists Now?

As journalism forges its role in a digital paradigm rife with instability, one question will continue to pester it: Who are the real journalists now?

As the medium evolves, so do the labels, leaving many readers feeling helpless in evaluating authenticity among a mosaic of voices. In the throes of the new media revolution, credibility is more fluid than ever before. Sure, a New York Times byline may be impressive, but how does it fare against 25,000 Twitter followers and a top-10 Technorati blog?

Image by Patrick Finney

Image by Patrick Finney

The answer, for the most part, is in the eye of the beholder; but the question gains much more saliency when it migrates from a media context into the realm of the law. Toss in an unsolved San Francisco homicide, a couple of First Amendment lawyers and a journalism student with a blog, and you’ve achieved the perfect storm of ingredients to wreak havoc on the California Shield Law.

A San Francisco State University journalism student – who has remained anonymous because of safety concerns – is invoking the shield law to resist attempts to turn over photographs and other information that police say could help them solve a murder. The student was working on a photojournalism project in a rough neighborhood when an individual he was profiling was murdered while shooting dice. The circumstances of the incident are cloudy, but when police arrived, the student was taking pictures of the victim and the scene. He may have also witnessed the slaying firsthand.

Lawyers for the student argue that because he had written blog posts about his project, he is protected under the California Shield Law. The majority of U.S. states have passed some degree of shield law legislation, which is intended to protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources or information to law enforcement. The idea is simple enough: When doing valuable reporting, journalists often rely on confidential sources. If courts can force reporters to betray promises of anonymity, watchdog journalism will suffer.

The California Shield Law applies to journalists “connected with or employed by a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, or by a press association or wire service.” Not surprisingly, there is no provision for journalism students or bloggers, but many First Amendment lawyers insist they are covered as well.

But if the Shield Law protects any and all bloggers, that potentially exempts an estimated 10 million-plus Americans from having to disclose information related to anything about which they are blogging. It’s hard to see how granting such widespread journalistic immunity helps either the rule of law or journalism flourish, outside of generating a new breed of citizen bloggers in the organized crime industry.

When press rights clash with the power of the judiciary, it is often a titanic battle. Both institutions are necessary components of a functioning democracy, and inhibiting either can have profound ramifications. When journalists are compelled to reveal certain confidential sources, it strikes a blow to public interest reporting, but when they are permitted to evade subpoenas for specious reasons, the judicial system is atrophied.

In this case, there is no anonymous source to be revealed: The source is in a grave. His killers are free and a citizen journalist who has valuable information is cloaking himself in the First Amendment not to protect the public interest, but because he is scared of retribution. Is his fear valid? It may be, but fear or danger are not allowances to dodge subpoenas and withhold information, nor should they be. It is rarely comfortable to testify in a murder case, but without the fortitude of key witnesses, thousands of additional murders would be unsolved. Just like any other citizen, the student journalist should be forced to disclose information and/or testify.

Shield laws should not be utilized as broad-based immunity invoked whenever convenient, but as rare exceptions in cases where the public interest is at stake. They should also not be available to every “Joe Blogger” out there, though online journalists doing rigorous and authentic reporting should be covered regardless of their medium. More importantly, journalists and First Amendment advocates should abandon a bit of their paranoia regarding journalists working with police.

Journalists are citizens too, and a press pass shouldn’t relieve them of basic civic responsibilities. If the creed of the press, as many suggest, is to seek truth and demonstrate a loyalty toward the populace, then it should promote such ideas by assisting the judiciary whenever ethically possible. Not doing so not only damages the legal process, but also sends the message that those seeking accountability from others are immune from it themselves.

This column was published in the Oregon Daily Emerald on May 27.

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