Guarding the news

The Baltimore Sun

Over the last four years, more than 40 reporters have been in danger of being held in contempt of court to protect their confidential sources. Two reporters were sentenced to jail or home confinement, and one reporter faced large fines if she did not reveal her sources. That disturbing trend is ample evidence of the need for a federal shield law to protect reporters from being compelled to reveal confidential sources in court. Without such protection, journalists' ability to expose corruption and misconduct would be sorely compromised. Refusal to pass this legislation would send a chilling message to whistle blowers and others who take great risks to expose wrongdoing.

The Free Flow of Information Act, a bill that would protect reporters from legal harassment and support the public's right to know, is expected to be voted on by the U.S. Senate in coming days. We urge the senators, including Marylanders Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, to approve this important measure.

Despite fierce opposition from the Bush administration, the shield law is supported by conservatives and liberals in Congress. The bill has been carefully crafted - it allows a judge to withdraw protection of a source in cases where the information would help prevent a terrorist act, pose significant harm to national security or impede a prosecutor's case.

The legislation has been endorsed by the attorney generals of 42 states, including Maryland, and is supported by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

The House passed a similar bill last October in a resounding 398-21 vote. Forty-nine states also have shield laws. The Sun and other news organizations prefer to identify and quote their sources whenever possible so readers can assess their credibility and interests. In most newsrooms, reporters and editors must agree there is compelling public interest before unnamed sources are used in stories. But in Maryland and elsewhere, vital stories - such as the Enron scandal and steroid use in Major League Baseball - could never have been written without the protection of confidential sources.

Congress and President Bush should recognize the importance of that protection.

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