Two New York lawmakers are pushing to revise the state's reporter shield law to include professional journalists who blog.
Currently, New York allows journalists associated with a variety of media outlets to protect confidential sources, but does not expressly mention blogs. "Unfortunately, New York state law has not caught up to the blogosphere," says State Senator Tom Duane, who introduced the bill. "This is an attempt to catch up and make sure that New York state law explicitly protects bloggers who are journalists." State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal joined Duane in proposing the measure.
Even with the change, the shield law would still only apply to professionals, defined as people who derive "gain or livelihood" from news-gathering. That description appears to exclude citizen journalists or other amateur reporters.
Duane says he proposed the revision in response to a recent incident involving the New York City political blog Room 8. Last year, the Bronx District Attorney attempted to subpoena information from the blog. The authorities ultimately withdrew the subpoena, but the incident still served as "a wake-up call," Duane says.
Some media observers say that even without the revision, New York's shield law arguably protects bloggers. As written, the statute applies to journalists associated with any "professional medium of communicating news or information to the public."
New York judges have interpreted that definition broadly in the past. For instance, courts have held that book authors are protected by the law, says Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Still, Leslie says the change would mark an improvement for journalists because there is no guarantee that New York judges will uniformly decide the current law covers bloggers. "To fix the law to remove any ambiguity is always the best bet," Leslie says.
There is no federal shield law, but all states except Wyoming allow journalists to protect their sources, at least in some circumstances. Many states limit that protection to people who gain revenue from journalism.
Leslie says that the income requirement often stems from a fear that protecting amateurs would mean that nearly anybody could avoid testifying by creating a blog. "It would become overwhelmingly hard for courts to function if everybody claimed to be a blogger to get out of testifying," he says.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has argued that the better course would be to protect people engaged in news-gathering without regard to the their status.