Should a Federal Press Shield Law Exist in the United States?

Press shield law refers to legislations that are put in place to protect the rights of reporters. News reporters and journalist have the right to be protected against the politicians and other people who might decide to exploit them. The reporters get a lot of information when gathering data. Therefore, they are prone to being misused and forced to testify against their will. Thus, federal press shield laws exist to protect journalists from all types of harm that they might face in the line of duty. In the United States, different states have their own press shield laws. However, a national federal shield law has never been enacted. Every state has its own laws that differ from the others (Rozell & Mayer, 2008).

Press shield laws protect journalists from being forced to give evidence of what they collected in state courts. Journalists should not be forced to witness unless they are willing to do so. Reporters gather a lot of information when in the field. They get a lot of information about what is happening, what happened and what is likely to happen. The members of the public easily trust journalists and provide them with confidential information. In fact, sometimes journalists have information that should be in the hands of the CIA and other security officers. There are investigative journalists, who are able to follow an occurrence or a story and get broad data that is required in court to persecute some people (Harcup, 2009). In this case, therefore, it is important to have press shield laws so that the privilege reporters have cannot be misused. The privileges of journalists should not be used to make them testify against their will.

On the same note, press shield laws protect reporters from forceful revealing of the source of a story or information they have. Sometimes journalists get information from confidential sources. It is unethical for journalists to reveal information they promise their sources will be confidential (Gant, 2007). In this case, they should be protected by the law so that they are not forced to act against their principle of confidentiality. Sometimes, reporters have confidential information that should not be revealed. However, during dissemination of news, the source of the information may leak. This is dangerous as the source might sue the reporter for revealing something that was supposed to be confidential. Press shield laws protect reporters in case such a leakage occurs. Depending on the sphere, the privilege of journalists may be total or qualified. Press shield laws sometimes extend to other people involved in the news dissemination and gathering processes such as publishers and editors. The laws extend to protect other stakeholders because it is unacceptable for a reporter alone to be protected, while others, who contributed to collection of confidential the information, are unprotected (Rozell & Mayer, 2008).

Press Shield Laws in the United States

The need to protect journalists came up in 1972 during Hayes Branzburg v. Branzburg case. This was the first time the issue of protecting journalists against forced testifying appeared in the Supreme Court of the United Sates. A reporter wrote an article concerning hashish, an illegal drug. During the creation of the news article, the reporter came across two people who had used the drug. This was an illegal activity in the state. The reporter promised the two informers that the information would remain confidential under any circumstance. However, the reporter was forced to testify against these two people in the court. According to the professional ethics of journalism, it is unacceptable to break a confidentiality promise. In his defence, the reporter refused to mention the names of the two people, who had used the illegal drugs. He cited the freedom of the press indicated in the Constitution’s first amendment (Robbins et al., 2011).

When the case was taken to the Supreme Court, the court declared that there was no law to protect reporters against testifying in court or revealing information that was confidential.
However, the Supreme Court recognized that the government had the right to protect journalists because they were subjective to the news they collected. Journalists gather news with an aim of reporting to the audience, but not to be used as intelligence report or to be used in court. Even if the court did not set a standard for the legislature to create such a law, it showed that there was need for such a bill. The power of the Supreme Court in this case was limited. In fact, it did not set any clear federal model regarding the rights of journalists and their protection. Therefore, the ruling had been cited and interpreted differently in different courts.

In the United States, there is no national press shield law existing today. However, different states have enacted their own federal press shield laws to protect the privileges of reporters. Currently, 49 states have shield laws. On the same note, the District of Columbia has passed a law protecting journalists. However, only 40 states passed laws that are recognized by the constitution. Every state has its shield laws that differ from the others. In some states, the press shield laws only protect journalists if the case at hand is civil. In other states, journalists are protected against revealing some information, but they are expected to reveal some information, especially when it comes to national security or issues that affect national interest. Most of the federal states have put in place laws that protect journalists from any harassment or other constitutional rights. Any constitutional argument concerning the rights of journalists is considered. The only state in the United States that lacks any form of press shield law, be it judicial or legislative, is Wyoming (Robbins et al., 2011).

The Drawbacks of Not Having a Federal Press Shield Law

Lack of federal press shield laws has greatly affected journalists. They cannot do their investigative jobs effectively as they fear that they will be compelled to testify in courts against their will. On the same note, journalists lack to acquire information from the public because people fear that they will be reported. If journalists are not protected by such a law, they will have to reveal the informants. Thus, the anonymity and security of the informants will be endangered (Borjesson, 2002).

Journalists are compelled to testify in civil and criminal cases after reporting some issues that do not involve questions of national security. Several legislatures have taken federal shield laws to Congress to try and protect journalists from such actions. However, none of the bills was passed by the Senate. The Senate opposes passing of a federal shield law because of fear that leakages might cause a lot of harm to the United States (Sterling, 2009). People, who claim to be journalists such as WikiLeaks, might publish leaked information on the internet, tarnishing the government and individuals. Therefore, the press shield laws can be harmful and should only be passed after a clear definition of who is journalist, and what information can be reported without being questioned. The press is not immune to biasness and irresponsibility. In some cases, a source seeks anonymity and journalists decide to disclose the source. During the 1991 Cowles Media Company v. Cohen case, the Supreme Court ruled that the source should be granted confidentiality if there is a written agreement between a source and a media house. However, the court should be allowed to compel a journalist to testify and reveal the source if the matter at hand affects national security. In this case, the source should be aware that the court can compel the journalist to disclose the information (Rozell & Mayer, 2008).

Polishing Your Writing to Make it Shine

On the other hand, opponents claim that enacting federal press shield laws can do more harm than good to the states. They claim that journalists should not be given special privileges because they can misuse these privileges to blackmail the public and the government. On the same note, the opponents claim that it can be difficult to define who is journalist and who is not. It can also be hard to define who should be protected by the law, considering that many people are involved collection and dissemination of news (Gant, 2007). There are those reporters, who gather information in the field, those, who combine the information and analyze it to come up with a story to be broadcasted, and, moreover, there are editors and also publishers among other stakeholders in the process. In this case, it is hard to determine who should be protected. In addition, federal press shield laws give reporters special protection from the government. In this case, journalists stop to be completely independent as they should be (Robbins et al., 2011).

According to opponents, federal governments should have no constitutional rights of enacting press shield laws in their states. Therefore, an attempt to do so is unconstitutional. They claim that the freedom of press in the constitution is enough to protect journalists. In their view, giving journalists extra privileges is giving malicious people and politicians a chance to taint the government and individuals. Journalist will have freedom to air and write about anything because no one will question them. They can use this chance to write wrong stories about the government or an individual, and no one will ask them to disclose the sources of their information. Similarly, fake informants might give false information to favor their personal interests. Since journalists are protected against revealing the source of confidential information, criminals will be unpunished while the affected people will carry shame forever (Borjesson, 2002).

Benefits of Creating a Federal Level Press Shield Law

There are many drawbacks of not having federal press shield laws, and federal governments should consider enacting them. According to supporters of press shield laws, journalists should be given freedom to gather and air news without fear of being forced to testify or disclose the source of confidential information. This can only be done if the reporters are assured that they will not be forced to testify in court (Sterling, 2009). The only way to assure them that their privileges will be protected is through passing and enacting press shield laws. The freedom of the press is important as it gives journalists a chance to do their jobs appropriately. On the same note, it is important to have these laws as they define the distinction between journalism ethics and state laws. Journalism ethics states that journalists should maintain confidential information at any cost. It is unethical for a journalist to promise an informer or a source that the information will be confidential, just for the informant to be arrested later because the information was revealed. It is hard for journalist to provide information when they know that they can be called upon to testify in court about some data they gathered or reported. In this case, proponents of press shield laws argue that federal press shield laws are very crucial in every state. Federal shield laws are the only way the privileges and freedom of journalists can be protected (Gant, 2007).

The media is the mirror of the society and, thus, should be protected. This means that what the media shows the audience the real state of the society. News reflects what is happening in the society. If journalists are not protected, people will also fear providing confidential information, even if the information needs to be presented to the society. They indicate the mind of the society, and its current and future actions (Sterling, 2009). Therefore, news acts as a mirror to show the way the society is. News makes the society behave in a particular way, depending on the current trends in the news. In addition, journalists use news to attract the attention of the audience because they tell the audience what the audience wants to hear. The audience is satisfied with news that reflects how the society is, but this can only happen if the reporters are protected against forceful testifying and revealing confidential information (Rozell & Mayer, 2008).

According to Harcup (2009), the manner in which news are organized reflects the society. In this case, federal governments should pass press shield laws to make it easy for them to understand the society. Journalists only select news that is valid to the targeted audience. In most cases, it is not possible to air news that is not related to the audience (Harcup, 2009). This is because the society will not be interested in the news. For that reason, journalists have to gather news that the audience will want to hear. In case the information required from the society is confidential, the society cannot share it with reporters if they are not sure that the reporters will not reveal it. Therefore, federal press shield laws are not only important to journalists but also to people, who have access to important information (Sterling, 2009).

In his well-documented book, A Life in Journalism, Maniam (2009) argues that presentations of journalists also present how a society is. Therefore, journalists should be allowed to give the picture of the society without fear of being forced to do things they do not want to do. In some societies, it is wrong to betray a person irrespective of who you are. Journalists have to deal with behavior of the society. Journalists cannot collect or present news in a manner that is not socially acceptable (Maniam, 2009). On the same note, things disliked by the society cannot be presented, even if a journalist presenting them has no problem airing the news. This indicates that the news reflect the society, and acts as its mirror (Harcup, 2009). Therefore, forcing journalists to reveal confidential sources of information will be betrayal to the society, and the society might not be ready or willing to provide information to such journalists. Some people have crucial information that is important to the state and the entire society. However, they do not want it to be reported that they are the ones, who have revealed the information. They seek anonymity for the sake of their safety and social status. In case a person is not assured that information will remain confidential, he/she will refuse to provide information, and there will be a great gap in knowledge.

Harcup (2009) points out that the news reflects what is happening in the society. Journalists are subjective. They only collect news that is available in the society. In this case, they report what is happening in the society. This indicates that news shows what is happening in different parts of a particular society. Therefore, news reveals activities, problems and other things happening in the society (Harcup, 2009). Borjesson (2002) argues that journalists gather information from people and events occurring in a particular society. Journalists only say what they find in the field, and it reflects the society. They do not get news from other sources as they have to be in the field. They collect news that is directly affecting the society. In this case, they show the audience what is happening in their surroundings (Borjesson, 2002). Therefore, journalists should not be restricted by making them testify in court against their will. It is not the work of journalists to collect intelligence reports. If journalists present a certain story, it is the responsibility of the intelligence and police investigators to look for further information on the same, if there is need. Compelling journalists to testify and reveal confidential sources of information violates their rights.

On the same note, the process of news making has to take into consideration values of the audience. If journalists are denied protection they are denied the right to investigate the values of the society. Journalists have to learn those values so that they present the news in an appropriate manner. In some societies, for instance, it is forbidden to discuss sexual issues in public (Robbins et al., 2011). In this case, journalists have to look for the most appropriate way in which such news can be presented. The audience might get annoyed if news goes against what they believe is right. Therefore, moral beliefs of a society are considered when preparing news. Some of the topics that are totally prohibited to be discussed in public in a particular society should be avoided. This is done to avoid presenting news that will not help the audience (Barnlund, 2008). Journalists can only do their work if they are assured that they are not going to be exploited.


In conclusion, there is need for a federal press shield law in the U.S to benefit journalism and investigative reporting. Journalists require having freedom in their work so that they can do what they are supposed to do without fear of being forced to testify or reveal their sources. In this case, all federal governments should enact federal laws and provide journalists with such privileges. This is the only way that can guarantee that news will reflect the society. News reflects what is happening in the society. News also shapes the society because it shows current trends and what is likely to happen in future. Consequently, media is like a mirror of the society. News represents how the society is organized. Moral values of the society are also taken into consideration during news-making. Journalists only air things that are socially acceptable, and in a manner that is accepted by the society. Investigative journalists can only reflect how the society is if granted freedom and are protected against exploitation and forceful testifying.