Shielding Reporters

The New York Times reports that a deal on a federal shield law is near:

The Obama administration, leading Senate Democrats and a coalition of news organizations have reached tentative agreement on legislation providing greater protections against fine or imprisonment to reporters who refuse to identify confidential sources.

….Protection under the so-called shield law would also be extended to unpaid bloggers engaged in gathering and disseminating news.

….In civil cases, the litigants seeking to force reporters to testify would first have to exhaust all other means of obtaining the information. Even then, the judge would apply a “balancing test,” and the burden would be on the information seekers to show by a “preponderance of the evidence” why their need for the testimony outweighed the public’s interest in news gathering.

Ordinary criminal cases, as in prosecutors’ effort to find out who leaked grand jury information about professional athletes’ steroid use to The San Francisco Chronicle, would work the same way, except that the balancing test would be heavily tilted in favor of prosecutors….Most cases involving disclosure of classified information would work the same way as criminal cases.

This is….better than nothing, I suppose.  But most of the high-profile trials of the past few years that involved confidential sources have been criminal cases, and it doesn’t sound as if this compromise proposal provides very much real-world protection in these cases.  But news organizations support it, so maybe it’s better than it sounds.  I’ll be curious to hear some media lawyers weigh in on it.

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