Two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle were subpoenaed earlier this year to testify before a grand jury regarding their sources in a story that connected high-profile athletes with steroid use. This week, the reporters face a final decision: expose their confidential sources or face jail time. What’s at stake in this case is the First Amendment and its vital protection of a free press that can hold the government accountable. Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public – a responsibility that journalists can continue to uphold only if they can protect their sources, and a federal shield law would help ensure that.
In the past year, the work of two Chronicle reporters, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, has been instrumental in connecting athletes, including Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco, to steroid use. Their work has also brought national attention to the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. In order to obtain information for their reports, these journalists had to promise confidentiality to their sources. By promising confidentiality, reporters are able to gather information from sources who otherwise would be reluctant to talk. Investigative reporting of this kind is a crucial role of the free press, and by jailing reporters who refuse to reveal their sources, the government encourages a watered-down media.
Although the reporters’ promises of confidentiality are perfectly legal, their sources violated grand jury secrecy laws in sharing information. In a last-ditch effort to expose the whistleblowers, the grand jury subpoenaed Williams and Fainaru-Wada to reveal their sources, even though the case doesn’t involve national security concerns – an emotional appeal many prosecutors have exploited in previous cases.
Williams and Fainaru-Wada’s predicament comes in the wake of a similar case in which Judith Miller of The New York Times was held in contempt of court for refusing to identify a source in connection with the exposure of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Each case illustrates how the reporter, rather than the source, is unfairly burdened with the responsibility of choosing between integrity and imprisonment.
American media organizations, dominated by corporate owners more concerned with turning a profit than the traditional journalistic role of holding truth to power, already carry out pitifully little investigative reporting. The federal prosecutors, in overstepping their authority, have unleashed a further chilling effect on the media. Certainly, all journalists cannot be expected risk jail time to uphold their values, so the likely consequence is a more complacent media that shies away from truly investigative reporting for less risky stories. With a weakened media, Americans are left uninformed and wrongdoers stand less of a chance of being exposed.
To foster the solid journalism needed for a functioning democracy, Congress needs to pass a shield law similar to those already in effect in 31 states, which protect news-gatherers from subpoenas seeking their notes and sources. Unfortunately, many of these laws are inconsistent with one another and have vague descriptions about who falls under their jurisdiction. The federal government has an obligation to protect the First Amendment and to enact a law that can uniformly protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential information.