‘Covered Journalists’: Federal shield law language a good compromise

How in the world do you define a journalist?

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee attempted to do it in 837 words. It’s an ambitious task, and I’m not really comfortable defining “covered journalist,” but in the big scheme of things the definition could be a lot worse.

Today the federal shield law bill (Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, S. 987) passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, 13-5, and it included amended language defining who is entitled to reporter’s privilege. The definition is really broad, as it should be. It includes college journalists, freelancers, bloggers (particularly those with traditional legacy media experience in the past 20 years), anyone working for a “news website” and just about anyone else gathering information and disseminating it for the public good. It specifically excludes terrorists and there is language that would exclude groups like Wikileaks.

And it has a safety valve: If there is disagreement a judge can decide.

This is a lot better than what was previously proposed, which made it sound like a journalist is someone with a “press” hat, notepad and pen, works for a newspaper and yells across rooms, “Hildy, get me that copy, now!” Journalism is a little more nuanced today.

But the gist is still the same: To collect and disseminate information so the people can self-govern. This shield law would help protect that mission. I personally thank Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Chuck Schumer for working out a compromise.

Stay tuned at the SPJ Shield Law page as we follow the details, figure out who will support it and who will oppose it, and let you know how you can have your say!




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