Pacific Daily News — Shield Law protects public's right to know

Pacific Daily News, Hagatna, Guam
By David V. Crisostomo
June 23, 2008

Guam's Shield Law protects local journalists from having to disclose the identities of their confidential sources.

One of the key roles of journalism in our democracy is to be the watchdo

Pacific Daily News, Hagatna, Guam
By David V. Crisostomo
June 23, 2008

Guam's Shield Law protects local journalists from having to disclose the identities of their confidential sources.

One of the key roles of journalism in our democracy is to be the watchdog of the people.

It's tough to get stories when people with information want to talk, but are afraid to come forward. The Shield Law (6 Guam Code Annotated, Chapter 9) allows journalists to get this information while maintaining their sources' confidentiality.

The local Shield Law was passed on the belief that compelling reporters to testify and to reveal the identity of a confidential source will restrict the flow of information to the public. An informed community is crucial to our democracy and helps keep our government accountable.

Guam's Shield Law states: "In order to protect the public interest and the free flow of information, the news media should have the benefit of a substantial privilege not to reveal sources of information or to disclose unpublished or untransmitted information."

Under our Shield Law, a reporter can't be held in contempt if he or she refuses to disclose the protected source.

While there is a local Shield Law, there is no such federal protection for journalists. There is no uniform law across the country to protect reporters who protect their sources. There are shield laws in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Nationally, more than two dozen reporters have been subpoenaed or questioned about their confidential sources in cases before federal courts in the past year. One reporter has served four months in home confinement for contempt for not revealing a source. Another reporter sits in a Virginia jail cell and four others could face up to 18-month sentences by the end of the year.

Federal shield law?

There is a national effort to pass federal shield protection legislation into law. The Free Flow of Information Act would create a qualified privilege to protect reporters from being forced to testify and reveal confidential sources, unless clear criteria are met.

"Many of the biggest investigative stories of our age have been based in part on information shared with a reporter by someone who wanted to keep his or her identity a secret," says Society of Professional Journalists President Christine Tatum.

"Anonymous sources handed over the Pentagon Papers and unmasked the culprits behind Watergate and Enron," she said. "They have outed some of the nation's worst corporate polluters. They have helped inform Americans' debates about the Iraq War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and global warming."

Among the federal bill's proposed provisions:

  • The federal government couldn't compel a journalist to provide testimony or produce documents without first showing the need to do so by a "preponderance of evidence."
  • Journalists can be compelled to reveal the identity of confidential sources when the court finds it necessary to prevent "imminent and actual harm to national security" or "imminent death or significant bodily harm." Journalists also may be compelled to identify a person who has disclosed trade secrets, health information or nonpublic personal information of any consumer, in violation of current law.
  • People covered by the shield would be those "engaged in journalism." Journalism is defined as "the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news and information for dissemination to the public." The bill does not explicitly protect bloggers, but to the extent a court determines they are engaged in the practice of journalism, they are likely to be shielded.

Limit anonymous sources

But a Shield Law isn't a green light for news organizations to have weak policies on the use of confidential sources. Weak policies and the abuse of confidential sources that follow undermine the credibility of news reports.

News organizations should always first insist that conversations are on record. They should limit the use of confidential sources to those instances when important information can't be obtained any other way.

News organizations should take great care to explain to the public why a source's identity needs to remain secret.

Ultimately, shielding reporters' confidential sources isn't about protecting reporters, it's about protecting the public's right to know.

For more information about access to public information, log on to You can also read about the island's Freedom of Information Act and Open Government Law.

Also check out my "From the Editor" blog at this week for more tips and useful Web links.

Thank you for reading the Pacific Daily News.

David V. Crisostomo is the managing editor of the Pacific Daily News.