During the course of its investigation into the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill, The Associated Press was given information from the then-office of Mineral Management Services that was not making a lot of sense.
As millions of gallons of crude spewed into the gulf waters and the oversight by MMS officials on BP’s well was being called into question, an anonymous source in that office told reporters far different stories than what they had been initially told. This anonymous source set the record straight by coming forward and speaking out, and suddenly the world knew that this was more than a mechanical failure; it was a full system failure. The people hired to keep these events from occurring were ignoring their responsibilities.
At times, anonymous sources provide crucial information to the press. Stories of oil disasters may be the latest, but without citizens coming forward and sharing vital information, Americans would not know about steroids in sports, excessive military spending, or food and drug hazards. We would never have been told about Watergate.
A bill currently in the U.S. Senate will help assure such stories continue to reach the public. S. 448, The Free Flow of Information Act, will protect the sources on whom journalists rely from having their identities exposed in all but a few circumstances including where national security concerns are raised. Five years in the making, the current version of this bill is supported by more than 50 journalism organizations, the White House, the Justice Department and most in Congress.
Most states have laws that can protect a source’s identity from overzealous prosecutors and judges, but there is no such protection yet at the federal level. S. 448 would change that and extend the same protections offered through statute or common law in 49 states to the national government. Without it, stories focusing on the federal government will not be told because reporters are faced with threats of jail time and fines if they do not turn on their sources.
As S. 448 awaits permission from key Senate leadership to come to the floor for a full vote, all senators need to hear from their constituents. The clock is ticking as Congress will recess in August. Tell your senator to have the bill moved to a full Senate vote as soon as possible and support its passage.
Without this bill, stories that affect lives, like the oil spill in the Gulf, will never get the detailed attention they need to bring about change. Without this bill, your government has a better chance of operating in darkness or lying its way out of trouble. Help bring this to an end by voicing support for S. 448.
Kevin Z. Smith, who wrote this editorial, is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.