AEJMC Voices Concern Over Recent Threats to Reporter Privilege

CONTACT: Lori Bergen, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2015-16 President of AEJMC | September 6, 2016

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the largest and oldest association of journalism and communication educators in the world, shares the concerns of a large number of journalists and their professional organizations about recent attempts to erode journalists’ longstanding legal ability to protect sources and information.

Free and democratic nations can exist only through the established and protected institution of the press, i.e., news media that are fundamentally independent of government control and regulation. Restrictions and intrusions into the news-gathering process threaten journalists’ ability to present information that is essential to citizens’ self-governance. The press-particularly in its watchdog role over government-historically has been accorded protections that are essential for accurate and comprehensive coverage of significant events and situations.

The news-gathering process requires the use of a wide range of sources to inform news stories. “Reporter privilege” to sometimes protect the identification of these sources and the information that these sources provide has had a long tradition in the United States. Not infrequently, information that citizens need and have a right to know comes from sources who may not want to be identified or who may want to provide contextual information in confidence. It is journalists’ professional and ethical responsibility to determine whether to report such information, to determine sources’ credibility and to honor sources’ requests for confidentiality.

The right of reporters to refuse to reveal confidential sources is widely recognized in federal and state jurisdictions. All but two Federal Courts of Appeal have recognized a privilege that shields journalists from revealing sources unless the party seeking the information can show that it is relevant to a case, is important to a court’s decision and is unavailable from other reasonable sources. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that offer limited to nearly absolute protection from contempt citations to reporters who refuse to reveal confidential sources, and most states include such protections for non-confidential information. In states not having shield laws, courts in all of the states except Wyoming have recognized some protection for reporters.

Recent examples of the threat to this important legal privilege include the criminal trial of Nasean Bonie, a former Bronx building superintendent who was convicted of killing a tenant. An appeals court supported the trial judge, who had ordered a cable television channel to submit unaired segments of an interview with the defendant, resulting in greater legal authority to compel journalists to produce unreported information. This decision may well burden journalists with subpoena requests, resulting in a chilling effect on the newsgathering process. Also troubling is the implication that news organizations are an ipso facto investigative arm of the criminal justice system. Already, this New York ruling has been cited in other attempts to force news media to release undisclosed information.

Adding another dimension to recent attempts to erode the protections of shield laws has been a military prosecutor’s declared intent to seek the complete recordings of a journalist’s interview with Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the accused U.S. Army deserter. Journalist, screenwriter and film producer Mark Boal had conducted interviews with Bergdahl, some of which were released on the podcast “Serial.” While military law operates apart from federal law, the threat to Boal’s journalistic integrity is nonetheless equally ominous.

AEJMC joins journalists and their professional associations in calling attention to recent threats to compromise journalists’ ability to protect the identification of confidential sources and threats to abridge their professional responsibility to be the custodians of news and other information that they gather. We support efforts to uphold a Reporter Privilege that is both strong and uniform throughout the American legal system. An extremely high bar must be set for the government to force news media to identify sources that they have agreed to keep confidential and to provide information that journalists did not choose to include in their reportage.

About AEJMC
The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is the oldest and largest “nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals” in the world. The AEJMC’s mission is to promote the highest possible standards for journalism and mass communication education, to cultivate the widest possible range of communication research, to encourage the implementation of a multi-cultural society in the classroom and curriculum, and to defend and maintain freedom of communication in an effort to achieve better professional practice and a better informed public.

For more information about AEJMC, please visit www.AEJMC.org, follow @AEJMC on Twitter or email to aejmcpr@aol.com.

For more information regarding this AEJMC Presidential Statement, please contact Lori Bergen, 2015-16 President of AEJMC, University of Colorado at Boulder, at Lori.Bergen@colorado.edu or Paul Voakes, 2016-17 President of AEJMC, University of Colorado at Boulder, at paul.voakes@colorado.edu.

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