The world of journalism in this country is on the verge of seeing a major breakthrough in the form of the first federal shield law, or legislation that protects journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. While most states and the District of Columbia already have their own specific shield laws in place, the Free Flow of Information Act would provide a nationwide standard for journalistic ethics.
For the purpose of this legislation, the definition of journalist does not include the unpaid college reporter. Reporters for The Hatchet are not paid, and thus are not covered by this new sweeping federal legislation.
The current proposed legislation has been threatened with a veto from the White House but reportedly has enough support in Congress to override such an action. Of course no law satisfies all parties, but this attempt is vital in the ever-changing world of journalism. The main problem with the proposed law is how the legislation will define and affect college journalists and other journalists not included in the ‘typical definition’ of a journalist, like online bloggers.
As journalists, not limited to the collegiate sphere, this page supports the efforts of enacting a federal shield law. In any free society, the media must be at liberty to report on vital issues without fear of repercussions. If a reporter cannot guarantee his or her sources anonymity, the whole system then becomes inherently flawed.
Still, most student journalists will not qualify for the protections of the law, which states that it will only apply to those who practice journalism for “a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain.” Since most college newspapers cannot afford to pay their staff much, if at all, this would disqualify most student writers and reporters.
College journalists engage in the same standards, ethics and practices of others deemed journalists. The first half of the House version text of the law fully describes what journalistic practices are. Most college journalists would agree that they fit as someone who “regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information.” The only difference comes with the mention of income.
A college newspaper is about learning the ins and outs of what the journalism world. While learning to report objectively and to use the Associated Press style guides, college journalists are also learning what journalistic ethics are. If a student journalist is talented and ambitious enough to uncover a coveted story or source, it is not right to make the student choose between jail time and revealing his or her source, all because they are not being paid for the work.
It is understandable that there must be some standard to define who qualifies as a journalist. However, college newspapers are training the next generation of reporters and editors who will soon be working at major publications. It is vital that all legitimate journalists be offered the same protection under the law.
This article appeared in the October 25, 2007 issue of the Hatchet.