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posted: 9/15/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Some hope to protect our right to know

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  • The proposed law protects reporters from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources and in the process protects whisleblowers, but it does not grant an absolute privilege.

      The proposed law protects reporters from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources and in the process protects whisleblowers, but it does not grant an absolute privilege.

 
The Daily Herald Editoral Board

It seems like a frustrating but absolute fact of life that things that ought to be simple often take an exorbitantly long struggle to accomplish.

That's true, at least for some of us, when we ask our teenager to pick up the dirty socks off the floor. And true, at least at most places, when someone wants to change the way things always have been done at work.

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Frustrating, but true.

That's sort of how we see the long and winding road Congress has taken to passing meaningful shield legislation to protect journalists from revealing the sources they use to inform the public about things government so often would like to keep secret.

This is so obviously fundamental to our democracy that you would think it would have been built into our laws decades ago. Instead, Congress has wrestled with it in fits and starts for years.

Finally, last week, we saw some hope that this legislation may come to pass.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday recommended on a 13-5 vote an important media shield bill that's been pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York with significant support from Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield.

The breakthrough for that recommendation was a compromise agreement on a long drawn-out battle over how to define a journalist.

That issue has been much more complex than you might imagine. In this day of bloggers and so-called citizen journalism, who qualifies as a journalist and therefore for protection under the law?

Is the guy who sets up a computer in his garage to blog about what he thinks about climate change a journalist? What about the Web investigators who've created their own websites and broken some of the biggest national stories in the past decade?

Prior to approving the legislation itself, the Senate committee on Thursday approved the definition, also on a 13-5 vote, in an imperfect compromise that at least moves the discussion and the legislation forward.

The definition categorizes a "covered journalist" as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information, according to The Associated Press. He or she would have to be employed for one year within the last 20, or three months within the last five years.

It's meaningful legislation, although we're not satisfied that it goes far enough.

It protects reporters from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources and in the process protects whistle-blowers, but it does not grant an absolute privilege. We agree with Caroline Little, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, that it is "a critical first step toward protecting the public's right to know ... This bill will preserve the integrity of the news gathering process while still ensuring effective law enforcement."

We commend the work Sen. Durbin has done on its behalf, and we encourage Congress and our suburban delegation to see to its passage.

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