Press Groups Welcome Senate Progress on Media Shield Law

Legislation that would offer more protection for journalists who use confidential sources nearly got hung up over a basic question: In the digital age, who is a journalist?

Pinpointing what constitutes a professional journalist is getting complicated in today’s smartphone- and internet-crazed world, where anyone can write a blog and act as an independent reporter. But the Senate Judiciary Committee took a swing at it and received support from several associations.

You first have to realize that the world has changed, and not everything occurs in print from people who work seven days a week at journalism.

The committee advanced the Free Flow of Information Act with a 13-5 vote last week after a two-hour debate over the definition. The agreed-upon description of a journalist: a person who had an employment relationship with a media outlet for one of the past 20 years or three continuous months in the last five years, or an individual with a substantial track record of freelancing in the past five years.

Student journalists are also covered, and, for those not covered, a federal judge will have discretion to determine whether the individual should be protected—a stipulation that was important for key stakeholders.

“You first have to realize that the world has changed, and not everything occurs in print from people who work seven days a week at journalism,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the bill’s sponsor, told the Huffington Post. “There are fine journalists that don’t do that anymore. But on the other hand, you can’t just say anybody who writes one single thing gets the same kind of protection. And so I think we’ve come to a pretty good balance.”

Several media associations agreed and praised the bill.

“As recent events have clearly demonstrated, it is essential to protect both the freedom of the press and our national security through a balanced law that applies across all federal circuits,” Caroline H. Little, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, said in a statement. “This bill will preserve the integrity of the news-gathering process while still ensuring effective law enforcement.”

In a blog post, David Cullier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that while he wasn’t comfortable defining “covered journalist,” the definition the Senate Judiciary Committee came up with could have been much worse.

“The definition is really broad, as it should be,” Cullier wrote. “It includes college journalists, freelancers, bloggers (particularly those with traditional legacy media experience in the past 20 years), anyone working for a ‘news website’ and just about anyone else gathering information and disseminating it for the public good. … This is a lot better than what was previously proposed, which made it sound like a journalist is someone with a ‘press’ hat, notepad, and pen.”

Schumer worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to reach the compromise on a bill that President Barack Obama strongly supported following revelations that the Justice Department secretly seized Associated Press phone records during a recent investigation.

The bill will now move to the Senate floor. A corresponding House version of the bill is still being reviewed by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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