Opinion

Protecting sources means protecting the public

By Kevin Z. Smith

During the course of its investigation into the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill, The Associated Press was given information from the then-office of Mineral Management Services that was not making a lot of sense.

As millions of gallons of crude spewed into the gulf waters and the oversight by MMS officials on BP’s well was being called into question, an anonymous source in that office told reporters far different stories than what they had been initially told. This anonymous source set the record straight by coming forward and speaking out, and suddenly the world knew that this was more than a mechanical failure; it was a full system failure. The people hired to keep these events from occurring were ignoring their responsibilities.

Without citizens coming forward and sharing vital information, Americans would not know about steroids in sports, excessive military spending, or food and drug hazards. We would never have been told about Watergate.

A bill currently in the U.S. Senate will help assure such stories continue to reach the public. S. 448, The Free Flow of Information Act, will protect the sources on whom journalists rely from having their identities exposed in all but a few circumstances including where national security concerns are raised. The current version of this bill is supported by more than 50 journalism organizations, the White House, the Justice Department and most of your congressional delegation.

Most states have laws that can protect a source’s identity from overzealous prosecutors and judges, but there is no such protection yet at the federal level. Without it, stories focusing on the federal government will not be told because reporters are faced with threats of jail time and fines if they do not turn on their sources.

Subpoenas against the press numbered more than 3,000 nationwide in 2006 with 335 issued by federal prosecutors seeking the identities of news sources, according to a survey conducted by a Brigham Young University law professor. More than a few journalists have spent time in jail, and some have been forced out of the profession all together by heavy fines that crippled them financially.

All senators need to hear from their constituents. Citizens who value the importance of transparency in governance and think the American press needs to continue to serve as the watchdog on the federal government should tell their senators to support this measure.

Without this bill, stories that affect lives, like the oil spill in the Gulf, will never get the detailed attention they need to bring about change. Without this bill, your government has a better chance of operating in darkness or lying its way out of trouble. Help bring this to an end by voicing support for S. 448.

Only when there is a free flow of information from the government to its people can we truly appreciate the beauty and power of a democracy.

Kevin Z. Smith is the 2009-2010 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Reach him at ksmith@spj.org. For more on SPJ’s work to improve and protect journalism, see www.spj.org.

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