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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
FOI Toolbox

Defining 'journalist' is a slippery slope

By Lynn Walsh

Are you a journalist? Are you regularly “gathering,” “collecting” or “preparing” information about “matters of public interest”?

You may think the answers to these questions are easy or should automatically be yes. But what if you had to prove that you were a “journalist” to be protected by the proposed federal shield law?

If you think this is crazy talk, think again. If you think there is no way that, in the United States of America, a proposed bill to protect journalists from being forced to reveal anonymous sources and information would include stipulations and try to define “journalist,” think again. If you think lawmakers would scoff at this idea, think again.

Because an amendment to the shield law bill offered by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin would do just that. This column was originally written in late August, and I hope that by the time you read this, the amendment will have been changed or defeated.

[UPDATE:The bill has passed the Judiciary Committee, with broadened, more inclusive language. See more here.]

But that’s not really the point.

The bigger issue is that the amendment exists in the first place. That lawmakers feel it’s necessary to limit the practice of journalism to a certain group. That — in a country where our right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press is envied, in a country that prides itself on open government and freedom of information — we’d want to curtail expression and access to information.

As the newsgathering process continues, as stories continue to break, and as journalists continue to shine light on government officials and agencies, the laws that protect us should not be getting worse.

The Free Flow of Information Act, as the shield bill is titled, would provide limited protection to those it covers from being forced to reveal sources in federal cases. All federal laws require a section describing who is covered or affected. This bill does that, referring to “covered persons” and describing what acts of journalism those individuals must be engaged in to receive the law’s protections.

The Feinstein-Durbin amendment would substitute the word “journalists” for “covered persons” and limit the protections to those who receive a salary.

Limiting the law’s protection to “real reporters,” as Feinstein said, defeats the purpose of the bill and what we, as journalists, should be fighting for every day.

Whether your story ends up on A1 of The New York Times or BuzzFeed should not matter, especially in this ever-changing media world. Whether you are a full-time reporter for a magazine or a freelance contributor to a tech website should not have a bearing on the type of protection you receive under a federal shield law — or the First Amendment.

All who commit acts of journalism should be protected under this law. There should not be qualifiers. If we as a country start allowing qualifiers and allowing lawmakers to pass bills that have qualifiers, we are only cheating ourselves. And I believe that is a slippery slope — a slope that affects journalists all around the world.

So, what can you do? The shield law has not passed yet. The first thing you can do is continue to fight for it. Contact your lawmakers, if you have not done so already. Spread the word on social media and let’s come together to really put on the pressure. By fighting for this, we are not just fighting for the future of our careers and our stories. We are fighting for the right and ability to continue to gather the truth and shine light where the powerful don’t want us to. SPJ has more information and resources here.

This proposed bill is just one battle for transparency and protection. The other battles are those we have every day with cities, counties, states and the federal government.

These may seem small or mundane to us, especially if we engage often, but if we don’t hold government accountable to the laws and follow up like we should, then we are slowly putting our rights to information in jeopardy.

While coming forward and fighting for the shield law is a step in the right direction, please don’t stop there. Follow up on your public records requests. When something is missing or not in the format you requested, speak up. Let’s not become complacent or become too excited when an agency actually does what the law says it’s supposed to do.

Let’s continue to fight for our right to access. Because if we aren’t doing it, who will?

Lynn Walsh is the investigative producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Fla. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. She is a member of the SPJ FOI & Generation J committees and serves on the board for the SPJ South Florida chapter. Twitter: @LWalsh.

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