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A shield to protect the public

November 10, 2005

A group of journalism students at West Virginia University on Tuesday announced the start of a nationwide petition drive in favor of a shield law for journalists.

It is a cause that will take a major sales effort. In March, the Public Broadcasting System reported that the latest Gallup poll showed only 30 percent of those surveyed have a great deal of confidence in journalists.

But before citizens conclude that this isn't a cause worth supporting, consider that Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, was locked up for 85 days this year for failing to reveal a confidential source.

Miller did research and interviews on CIA agent Valerie Plame, but never actually wrote a story. She wasn't released from jail until her source waived the promise of confidentiality she had made to him.

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If there is no federal law, reporters in those states that don't have such statutes could be silenced, especially those who work for small papers whose owners don't have deep pockets to fight efforts to expose their sources.

Without such sources, journalism might survive, but would have a serious leash placed on its function as a watchdog over government and other taxpayer-funded activities.

In an October 2004 speech given at the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, media lawyer Bruce Sanford went to the heart of the matter.

Sanford said a shield law "is not special-interest legislation for the press. It is the public who needs to know what is really going on in government ..."

That same month, Paul McMasters, an ombudsman for the First Amendment Center, also argued that a shield law would not be a special privilege for the press, but "an important protection for the public it serves."

Without such a law, McMasters said, " ... no government is fully accountable - or successful, for that matter - if all the information about its policies and operations comes only from government officials with a vested interest in retaining power and position."

Most newspapers use confidential or anonymous sources sparingly, but the people who risk their jobs - or worse - to expose wrongdoing shouldn't be at the mercy of the wrong-doers.

If the government was doing something wrong and you were the victim, wouldn't you want some help? A national shield law would make it much more likely that your unfortinate dilemma would come to the public's attention.

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