Washington Senate revisits effort to shield reporters' confidential sources

by Adam Wilson, Olympian

The Senate, with nine new faces this session, still seems to be tough territory for a proposed shield law that would protect the confidentiality of reporters' sources.

A bill that would have extended the secrecy protections given to husbands and wives, as well as lawyers and clients, passed both the House and a Senate committee last year.

It never came to a vote on the Senate floor, however, and was brought back for a hearing Tuesday.

"I think the prospects are very much the same. I think it's going to be a close vote," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Kline said.

As an example of confidential sourcing, KING-TV reporter Susannah Frame told senators that she would be willing go to jail before naming a source about security breaches at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

She said that although threats of lawsuits about her stories are common, she has never been forced to testify at a trial.

Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, pointed out that Washington doesn't have a history of forced testimony and questioned the need for a privilege written in law.

The only time a reporter was jailed by a Washington judge for refusing to reveal a source, the judge's decision was quickly reversed by the state Supreme Court, said Rowland Thompson of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.

Thompson and other supporters of the shield law said it allows reporters to make promises of confidentiality to whistle-blowers who otherwise might not bring hidden wrongs to the public's attention.

"We're all better off knowing that information," said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for the King County Prosecutor's Office.

He said his office has a policy of not forcing reporters to testify in cases or seeking their notes.

Attorney General Rob McKenna also supports the bill.

The King County Bar Association, the Washington Construction Industry Council and the Washington Defense Trail Lawyers oppose granting absolute reporter privilege.

Mel Sorensen of the defense lawyers association said that the proposed bill would qualify most businesses in the state as members of the news media. It defines news media as any person or entity in the regular business of disseminating information to the public by any means.

"It couldn't be more broad," Sorensen said.

And Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said he wasn't sure that the source-reporter relationship should be treated with the same deference as the doctor-patient relationship by placing it outside the realm of criminal evidence.

"When we're giving a privilege, what we're really saying is, 'The truth be darned,' " Carrell said.

Kline, who plans to sponsor the bill, said its definition of news media is open to negotiation. He said convincing lawmakers that absolute reporter privilege benefits the public, not just media companies, would be key to its passage in the Senate.

"This is not for the institutions, the news organizations. This is about the public's right to know," he said.

Kline said the 32 Senate Democrats appear to be deeply split on the issue, and he expected to need votes from among the 17 Republicans.

"I assume I'm going to have to go to the Republican caucus and ask the attorney general to talk to them," he said.

article originally published at http://www.theolympian.com/125/story/59942.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey