To Shield or Not to Shield

When I worked as a newspaper journalist, I strongly favored strong shield laws. Reporters needed to be able to protect their sources or they would be out of business. Pretty cut and dried.

When I left the newspaper industry to become the Los Angeles County court system’s information officer,  I became less dogmatic. The primary reason was a fuzzying of just who legitimately could be identified as a journalist and what exactly comprised the news media.

The question arose when a judge got a request from a tabloid TV show to let their camera record a civil court proceeding.

It came up several times during the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials. One man presented an expired “Writers Union” membership card as a media credential. Another man confessed the news outlet he listed as his employer was no more than a gleam in his brain. Yet another man who had never worked as a journalist  insisted that his intent to publish somewhere, he had yet to determine where, what he would observe in the courtroom entitled him to a media seat.

And the Santa Barbara court executive officer asked me, when I served as a consultant on the Michael Jackson child-molestation case, to help him formulate guidelines that would enable his staff to differentiate real journalists from wanna-bes or pretenders.

That is a question embedded in a debate in Massachusetts, which has no specific shield law on its books.  More overt in the discussion is whether that state’s common law privilege is adequate in protecting journalists from being required to reveal their unnamed sources and/or produce unpublished or unaired  information gathered or prepared in the course of news gathering.

New life for a media shield law

A Massachusetts state legislator who is a former newspaper publisher wants to end that ambiguity by having a specific law on the books.  In addition to clearing up the current common-law ambiguity, I hope the folks in the Bay State come up with a way to clarify the murky waters of whom its shield law would cover.

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