WASHINGTON – A Senate panel on Thursday approved legislation designed to protect reporters and the news media from having to reveal their confidential sources after narrowing the definition of a journalist while establishing which formats – traditional and online – provide news to people worldwide.
On a 13-5 vote, the Judiciary Committee cleared the way for the full Senate to consider the measure. The vote came just months after the disclosure that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed almost two months’ worth of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for the Associated Press and secretly used a search warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist.
The Justice Department took the actions in looking into leaks of classified information to the news organizations.
A point of dispute was the definition of a journalist in the proposed legislation.
The original bill would have extended protections to a “covered person” who investigates events and obtains material to disseminate news and information to the public. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a chief proponent of the media shield legislation, worked with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as well as representatives from news organizations, on a compromise.
The protections would apply to a “covered journalist,” defined as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have to have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years.
It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years.
The compromise also says that information is only privileged if it is disseminated via a news medium, described as “newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, news website, mobile application or other news or information service (whether distributed digitally or otherwise); news program, magazine or other periodical, whether in print, electronic or other format; or thorough television or radio broadcast or motion picture for public showing.”
While the definition covers traditional and online media, it draws the line at posts on Twitter, blogs or social media from non-journalists.
The overall bill would protect reporters and news media organizations from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources, but it does not grant an absolute privilege to journalists. “It’s Kevlar, not kryptonite,” Schumer said.