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Protecting sources essential in journalism

Journalists are a pesky bunch. Often referred to as the Fourth Estate of the U.S. government, the press functions as part of the “checks and balances” system the government operates on, unearthing information that often embarrasses or even incriminates someone. And even though such journalism is protected under the First Amendment, journalists are increasingly pressured to reveal sources. Such practices erode one of our most basic civil rights: free speech. It is therefore necessary to adopt a nationwide law that protects not only journalists, but also the identities of their sources.

Such protection would most effectively occur through the nationwide adoption and implementation of so-called “shield laws.” The implementation would prohibit anyone from pressuring journalists into revealing their sources, be it by subpoenas or other means.

Many states already have such laws; Florida implemented its shield law in May 1998. The protection, however, varies from state to state. It is important to standardize the protection nationally to ensure adequate coverage no matter where a story is published.

Sources will talk to journalists only if they can be assured that confidential information will indeed remain confidential. If this is not guaranteed, investigative journalism is virtually impossible.

The coverage of the Watergate scandal, for example, relied on an anonymous source. While the source — infamously nicknamed Deep Throat — was never quoted directly, it was instrumental in helping reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stay on the right track in their investigations. Deep Throat’s identity, however, remains unknown to this day to all but the two reporters and their supervising editor.

There was a time when the First Amendment was taken so seriously that there was no need for any further legislation. During the Watergate scandal, not even the Nixon administration dared to pressure the journalists into revealing their sources, even though their coverage effectively forced President Richard Nixon to resign.

It is a paradox: The First Amendment is most effective if its guidelines are upheld without any added legislation. But if it isn’t upheld, it can only be strengthened through added statutes, such as shield laws.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, our civil rights are being encroached upon by the day. Our government seemingly throws them out whenever convenient, often for the sake of “national security.” While it is regrettable that a national shield law is needed, it is vital for the survival of our democratic system.