By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
Are you a “true journalist”? Can you prove it?
I received some frantic emails over the weekend from reporters concerned about a proposed amendment to the federal shield law legislation currently being discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The need for a federal shield law, designed to protect reporters from having to disclose confidential sources in federal court, is almost universally supported in the journalism world. While most states have a shield law, efforts to pass a federal shield law have failed twice in recent history. It’s open for discussion again after the Department of Justice ignored longstanding agreements when it seized the phone records of some AP reporters and dug into the phone and email records of a reporter from Fox News.
But the emails I received weren’t about the need for a shield law, they were about reports that Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) wanted to include a definition of a “real reporter” in the legislation, so that not just anyone, including people who work for Wikileaks, would be protected by the law. News articles in publications ranging from the Washington Examiner to the Huffington Post quoted Feinstein saying in a committee hearing that she wanted to make sure the shield law only protected “real reporters” and that the definition of reporters be “only those who make salaries.”
I could see why people were concerned. Creating a shield law that protects only “real reporters” defined as “those who earn salaries” would create a bizarre world where Pulitzer prize winning syndicated and freelance writers like Connie Schulz would not be protected as a “real journalist”, but your local talk radio antagonist who draws a salary from their station would be protected. If this were true, it certainly seemed like a bad idea to me.
The debate over whom the shield law should protect is a philosophical one that must be codified to make the law workable. Constitutional purists will argue that anyone, who publishes anything, in any medium, is acting as a journalist and therefore should be protected. But I understand the impracticality of having the shield law protect every person with internet access and information. But defining “real reporters” as only those who draw salaries seems ignorantly exclusionary. I simply couldn’t believe this is what Feinstein meant, and so I did what “real reporters” do. I called her office to ask, “Is this really what you meant?”
Guess what, it’s not.
I got a copy of the transcript from the Committee hearing in question and a copy of the proposed amendment. The description of the amendment as defining journalists simply as those who are salaried is incomplete. In fact, the amendment fills more than four pages to define a journalist, and a complete reading of the first sentence clearly shows it would include more than just those of us who earn a salary. It says a journalist is:
(A) means a person who— is, or on the relevant date, was, a salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information by means of newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, magazine, news website or other news service distributed digitally, news program, or other periodical, whether in print or electronic format or through television or radio broadcast, multichannel video programming distributor (as such term is defined in section 602(13) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 522(13)), or motion picture for public showing;
It goes on, but you get the point. I’m not a lawyer, but basically, if somebody pays you, or your work has gone through some sort of professional editing process, or appears in a place generally understood to be a news publication, you’re covered. Furthermore, if it’s confusing it will probably be up to a judge to decide.
So why all the concerned emails? Why all the news articles claiming Feinstein said only salaried reporters should be protected? Well, ironically, it seems to have happened because we don’t have enough “real reporters.” As far as I can tell in tracking these stories back, there was an AP reporter and an intern for a newspaper chain who covered this Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday as it happened. The AP reporter wrote this:
Feinstein's amendment, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., "defines a journalist as a salaried agent" of a media entity, such as a newspaper, broadcast news station, news web site or another type of news service distributed digitally. She said there was also language, including a "look back" option to protect legitimate reporters not tied to a specific news organization.
It leaves out the rather crucial “independent contractor or agent” phrase, but the second sentence does suggest that the definition would not be only for salaried reporters.
The newspaper intern wrote something similar but only mentioned the part about reporters needing to earn a salary.
Some media outlets, such as the Washington Post and the Miami Herald, printed the AP story in its entirety. Others, including some newspapers and almost every single blog on the topic, shortened the statement to only include the part about “real journalists” needing to be “salaried journalists” to be worthy of protection by the shield law. In fact, most bloggers had a headline similar to AllGov.com which read: “Sen. Feinstein Says only Salaried Journalists should be Protected by Shield Law.”
That’s when the emails started to come to me. Lots of media outlets were spreading a poorly reported story, and even exaggerating it. As I said above, I thought to myself, “This can’t be right, can it?” I suspected either Feinstein misspoke or was quoted out of context. It just didn’t pass the sniff test. So I did what any good (or real) reporter would do, I called Feinstein’s office to find out. It took about 10 minutes to get my questions answered and a copy of the proposed amendment in my email. Many of the articles and blog posts about this issue were either overly simplistic or just plain wrong. People, many of whom would call themselves real reporters, were passing along a provocative story without checking to see if it really was that provocative.
I’m sure we all want to be thought of by Congress as “real reporters” when it comes to federal protections. One step that may help us, is if more of us acted like “real reporters” when we do our jobs.
- A glimmer of good news
- RTDNA Region 8 Director named
- RTDNF to honor Gannett's Dave Lougee
- Federal shield law: Member call to action!