How Freedom of the Press Works


Shield Laws and the Media

These days, the media paradigm has shifted away from newspapers, in large part due to 24/7 news cycle on cable TV and the explosion of internet news. As such, says Freedom House's Repucci, the definition of "the press" has changed.

"At Freedom House, we say that the press includes all sources that produce news and commentary," Repucci says. "This can include print, broadcast and online news outlets, as well as social media and communication apps, like WhatsApp, when they are used to gather or disseminate news and commentary for the general public."

That's the concept of the press in a nutshell. It's worth noting that freedom of the press isn't a magic bullet for all of society's ills, and it isn't an all-powerful right. Even in America, there are limits to this freedom and journalists must refrain from specific activities. They can't purposely libel (defame) someone in the media. They can't spread obscenity. And they can't incite people to violence(fighting words) or create a call for illegal activities.

But the U.S. government frequently takes measures to protect journalists' rights. Although there notably are no federal shield laws, 49 states (excepting Wyoming) have some version of these laws, which allow reporters to refuse to reveal confidential sources or other information they use to build their stories. Depending on the state, the shield law varies from almost no protection to nearly absolute protection [source: RCFP].

Shield laws don't provide bulletproof defenses for every situation. If someone breaks the law in sharing information with a reporter, shield laws may not apply, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), which indicated that reporters can be forced to reveal sources if there's evidence of a crime [source: Smolkin].

That's exactly what happened in 2005, when a judge told New York Times reporter Judith Miller that she was required to name the source who revealed the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover C.I.A. agent. Miller refused — and spent around three months in jail.

You don't have to be a journalist by job title to be protected by a shield law. No matter whether it's print, a blog, TV or a podcast, if you're creating stories to inform the public, American laws protect your right to share information. That means your simple blog may grant you the privilege of shield laws, as long as you aren't knowingly trying to defame someone [sources: EFF, Meyer].

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