Protecting sources is vital for journalism

Story by Martha Landry, Currents Editor

As a journalist, one of the most important things we have is a trust with our sources. Shield laws protect the reporter’s privilege, and gives journalists protection from being forced to disclose information about confidential sources in court unless you are subpoenaed.

Law varies from state to state but basically this allows journalists to promise anonymity to sources most of the time.

In Colorado, journalists are protected by a shield law.

Jana Winter is a reporter for Fox News. Winter reported on a notebook allegedly owned by the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes five days after the shooting, according to a New York Times opinion column, “A Killer’s Notebook, A Reporter’s Right.”

The notebook had been mailed to a University of Colorado psychiatrist by Holmes, prior to the shooting and put into protective custody by the police, but Winter has not stated where her information came from.

Either the police officers in custody of the notebook leaked information about illustrations of the mass killing and detailed descriptions of his plans or Winter falsified information, according to Holmes’ lawyers.

Because she received a subpoena, Winter can either name her sources or face jail and fines.

In 2005, Judith Miller, while reporting for The New York Times, was jailed for refusing to reveal her confidential source. She spent 85 days in jail before finally revealing her source (I. Lewis Libby, Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff) but still did not credit him for the information she was jailed for.

The issue for Miller was the leaked identity of an undercover CIA operative.

In both of these circumstances are obviously very serious and it is extremely important to get the facts correct, but forcing a journalist to give up their core tenants is unacceptable.

Journalists are nothing without our sources, they’re our facts. How is information expected to be reported on if sources cannot trust a reporter (because the law forbids the protection of their identity)?

I just don’t understand how revealing your sources can even be a legal issue. If the newspaper agrees that the reporter is trustworthy enough to use a confidential source then it’s their business.

According to the same New York Times article, the information that is being sought after has no involvement in Holmes being convicted. I have been unable to find Winter’s article anywhere online, but from what I can understand, the story was a public interest piece and did not have to do with his criminal status.

To me, it seems there are people who are upset about potentially leaked information and the law wants to see them punished.

I totally get it. If these police officers did actually leak the information, then they did break the law. They went against confidentiality but they decided that it was more important for this information to be exposed to the public.

Situations like this are not black and white. It is easy to say that something is against the law but Winter is extremely brave for defending her rights and the rights of every other journalist. I stand by Winter and hope that our justice system continues to recognize the importance of protection a journalist’s source.