Today: Jun 19, 2024

Protecting our journalists


Chardonnee Wright

Staff Writer

As a journalism major, I expect that whenever I get into my career, I will be protected–not just in the physical sense of protection, but protected by the law. Should a journalist be subpoenaed to court to give up their confidential sources after writing a story? Absolutely not! Not only does that take away the accreditation of that journalist, no one will trust the media. Some of the public already have a negative view of the media. Why give them more to talk about?

According to the website, the definition of a journalist is “to create reports as a profession for broadcast or publication in mass media such as newspaper, television, magazine, documentary film and the internet. Journalists are supposed to report in the most objective and unbiased way to serve the public good.”

Now what if something interferes with a journalist being able to get their job done?
What if a journalist could not properly complete a story because they can be persecuted or become liable to testify in front of a grand jury about anonymous sources?

These possibilities are not fair.
All journalists should be able to complete their job with no fear or even the slightest concern that their protection is not guaranteed. I know I would want that.

The public wants to be informed.
They want to understand everything that may have an effect on them or their community. To further illustrate my stance, the Branzburg v. Hayes trial is a combination of four cases where there was a need for a federal shield law to be implemented.

The Branzburg v. Hayes case was argued in the Supreme Court on Feb. 23, 1972. Paul M. Branzburg was a staff reporter a daily newspaper published in Louisville, KY called the Courier-Journal.

He wrote a story that talked about the drug activity that surrounded the state and it was published on November 15, 1969. While gathering sources and research, Branzburg made an agreement with anonymous sources not to disclose these drug dealers as they allowed him to watch them hash marijuana.

According to, hashing marijuana is a method where resins from the cannabis plant are extracted and preserved. Along with the article was a photo of two hands above a table displaying this method. The article even went to great lengths to state the sources of the hands were not to be revealed.

Furthermore, following the publication, the Jefferson County grand jury subpoenaed Branzburg to testify about whose hands were making the marijuana and hashish from marijuana. Branzburg refused to give up his sources.

A state trial court judge did not acknowledge that the First Amendment protected Branzburg’s decision not to testify. The First Amendment held no weight in this decision whatsoever because in the end, the court found that requiring reporters to disclose information to grand juries did not violate his First Amendment rights.

“The parade of high profile journalistic martyrs, from Vanessa Leggett to Judy Miller to the BALCO Boys has turned reporters into law school candidates, as well-versed in the legal implications of confidentiality as the ethical ones,” said writer Lori Robertson for the American Journalism Review.

Numerous times reporters find themselves in these court situations when they were just trying to do their job. Branzburg had every right not to give up his anonymous sources in court.

Similarly, Branzburg found himself in court for a second time for another article he published. On Jan. 10, 1971, Branzburg wrote about the massive drug use in Frankfort, KY.

According to the code of ethics, a reporter’s job is to seek truth and report it. This is what Branzburg was doing while conducting his research. He was seeking the truth while meeting and interviewing many drug dealers and observing them while they smoked and sold drugs over a two week period.

Not much later, Branzburg was subpoenaed to appear before a Franklin County grand jury. He was to testify on the matters of violation of statutes with the use and sale of drugs.

As we know from earlier, Branzburg finds himself in a position where he is out to do his job as a staff writer and cannot effectively get the story done without interference from a court.

The public wants to know the truth. Reporters seek truth and report it. For the court, testimony is good; for Branzburg, it’s detrimental.

As we see in these two cases involving Branzburg, a federal shield law would have helped him out because it would have protected his right as a journalist to cover the story and not give up the unidentified sources.

It’s obvious the First Amendment does not provide all the protection needed. If so, Branzburg would not have been subpoenaed to testify in court. Branzburg even argued that his effectiveness as a reporter would have been greatly damaged if he was to reveal these sources. Instead, the court rejected his claim of protection and privileges under the First Amendment.

If a journalist makes an oral agreement with anonymous sources that he will not identify them, that journalist has to stick by those promises or their accreditation will be ruined. Journalists have to develop trust with their sources.

Writer Bill Kenworthy agrees with me. Kenworthy wrote an article for about federal shield laws.

“The reasoning behind the reporter’s argument is clear,” said Kenworthy. “If reporters are forced to respond to subpoenas and identify their sources or disclose other confidences, their informants will refuse, or will be reluctant to furnish newsworthy information in the future.”

Time magazine published an article entitled “Law: A Dry Spell of Doubt for Reporters,” giving examples of the different situations reporters find themselves in when being subpoenaed by the court.

“Both cases, along with Branzburg, make it more difficult for reporters to preserve the confidentiality of sources,” said Time magazine.

This is true. A reporter cannot write false information. If they do write false information, they should not be a reporter. What better way to tell a story than to actually observe and write what you see? It is not fair for the First Amendment not to protect these rights for journalists and a federal shield law is vital so these subpoenas can stop.

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