Privileging the Press: Confidential Sources, Journalism Ethics and the First Amendment

Privileging the Press: Confidential Sources, Journalism Ethics and the First Amendment

Privileging the Press: Confidential Sources, Journalism Ethics and the First Amendment

Privileging the Press: Confidential Sources, Journalism Ethics and the First Amendment

Synopsis

Shepard examines how subpoenas for newsgathering information have raised both old and new legal and ethical problems for journalists seeking to protect confidential sources. He explores the ethical and legal evolution of journalistic privilege drawing on cases from the 19th century, the First Amendment principle that emerged in the middle of the 20th century, the public policy implications debated in congressional hearings in the 1970s, and the rise and fall of common law protections in the federal courts between 1972 and 2003. He also interviews key journalists and media lawyers in recent privilege cases. In tracing the development of the journalist's privilege from colonial times to the present, Shepard finds a dynamic interaction among journalism ethics, free-press theory, and legal jurisprudence that supports qualified legal protections for journalists.

Excerpt

The first time I was leaked federal grand jury documents for a newspaper story, I had no idea of the perilous legal environment I was entering. As a young police reporter for The Capital Times, a metro afternoon daily in Madison, Wis., I was eager to get my byline on the front page, please my editors and force my competition at the larger morning daily to cite my reporting in their follow-up to our scoops. Little did I know that my investigation into cocaine purchases at Jocko’s Rocket Ship, a seedy downtown bar just off State Street on the edge of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, would eventually spark a book about the ethics and laws of journalists and their confidential sources.

The initial hints of a big story came when I got tipped off about a secret police raid of Jocko’s in which a number of patrons were injured by more than two dozen heavily armed cops. Official police sources wouldn’t tell me anything, but eventually through ambulance and 911 records I tracked down a man who was sent to the hospital. He gave me some tantalizing details about the raid before calling back and leaving me a voice mail threatening to kill me if I reported his name in the paper. The intrigue continued. At a press conference announcing that the bar owner and eight others were indicted for operating an “indoor open-air drug market” for a decade, federal prosecutors stated that a number of city firefighters were among the regular clientele. Among Madison’s chattering political class, rumors also implicated other prominent people, including high-profile attorneys and even members of the Police Department. Some of the police reports from the investigation were provided to the Fire Department, which then had no choice but to launch its own investigation into how widespread cocaine use was in its ranks. Secret suspensions fueled criticism about the investigation, and my newspaper’s editorial board crusaded against the . . .

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