Guest Editorial: Why Vermont needs a shield law for journalists

When you want to find out what’s going on in our state, nation and world, you most likely turn to the news media, which perform a vital function in a democracy of keeping the government accountable and the people informed. Yet the news media are under siege by some forces in power, particularly by the current administration in Washington. D.C.
Most reporters I know are doubling down, trying to be more responsible, more hard-digging, more independent and more careful in checking their biases at the door as they go about their work. It’s the only way to maintain the public trust so vital to the work. This obviously is important in coverage of politics and government. It’s just as important in reporting on the criminal justice system.
That’s why it was so disturbing to see, during the recent sex-crimes case against former Vermont state Sen. Norm McAllister, three journalists from the Burlington weekly Seven Days and one from Vermont Public Radio subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution and against McAllister. I covered the McAllister case for The Associated Press and have reported on others like it. I can tell you it’s really challenging in cases like this, and takes a lot of thought and concentration, to walk the fine line of fairness and evenhandedness toward both the accusers and the defense.
Journalists simply can’t be asked to join the team for either the prosecution or the defense in these cases—not if we want to maintain and promote the independent news reporting that keeps us informed about the workings of the criminal justice system. That’s why Vermont needs to join the roughly 40 other states with journalists’ shield laws that prevent reporters in all but the rarest of cases from being called to testify.
In order to maintain the trust of their interview subjects, as well as their readers, they needed to be able to do that work without any expectation that they would become tools either of the defense or of the prosecution…
Different state shield laws differ in certain respects. Here are features Vermont lawmakers should include in a shield law bill here, (a version of which recently passed the Senate and is now being considered by the House):
• First, there should be a high bar: If police or lawyers on either side can get the information they want, or even sufficient information to present a strong case, from elsewhere, they should be required to go that route, even it it’s harder.
• Second, if the conversation between the reporter and source was in confidence, it simply should be unobtainable by the court system, like that between a confessor and priest or client and lawyer.
• Third, a question will be raised about who qualifies as a journalist covered by the shield law: a talk-radio host? A blogger? One approach might be to define journalism, rather than journalist. If the subject has been covered by the media outlet in question and a report has been produced for a general audience, whoever produced it is de facto a journalist.
Vermont has excellent, taxpayer-funded law enforcement personnel with extensive techniques, equipment and powers — including the power to seek and execute search warrants and in most cases, the power to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony. These people and their tools do a top-notch job getting the results they and the public want.
Law enforcement has the funding, the tools and the powers that journalists lack. All we bring is our independence and willingness to ask questions without regard to whose side in a story the answer might help. A shield law would go a long way toward ensuring that independence is protected and preserved.
Dave Gram recently left The Associated Press after more than three decades covering Vermont from its Montpelier bureau.

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