Baseball steroids case raises First Amendment issues
Investigative reporters also uncover abuses by politicians, business executives, law enforcers and others. Ask class members if they can recall public interest reporting locally or nationally that brought benefits by being printed.
Ask students to list advantages and risks of the First Amendment's press freedom guarantee. Use their lists to start a discussion of how the local paper fits into the government system of checks and balances.
To maintain credibility, most newspapers minimize the use of unnamed sources such as whoever passed grand jury transcripts to the California writers. Challenge students to find an anonymous source in a news article during the past week. If one is spotted, discuss whether the person deserves to be unidentified and whether the information or comment serves a useful purpose.
Two San Francisco reporters are appealing a jail sentence of up to for refusing to testify about who leaked them secret testimony from Barry Bonds and other elite athletes about steroid use by professional athletes. Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada published articles and a book based partly on transcripts of testimony by Bonds, Jason Giambi and others before a federal grand jury investigating a California nutritional supplement company exposed as a steroid peddler two years ago.
The U.S. Justice Department to prosecute whomever unlawfully delivered the transcripts, and the government says the two writers are the only ones who can name their sources. The investigative journalists acknowledge being in contempt of court, but requested a "nominal monetary fine" and punishment such as house arrest and weekend jailing. Each has a wife and children.
A judge’s decision last week to jail the pair raised the stakes in a high-profile case. It’s seen as a conflict between the 1st Amendment and reporters' ability to gather news versus prosecutors' interest in maintaining grand jury secrecy to get reliable testimony in criminal investigations.
Journalists say: Compelling testimony would undercut efforts to perform the public service of exposing wrongdoing. “When reporters who are just doing their job are looking at prison time, that's never a good thing. The public is not well-served.” – Phil Bronstein, editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, the pair’s employer
Judge says: Secret grand jury proceedings are critical to the justice system of justice and outweigh the media's need to promise confidentiality to sources possessing vital information.
What’s at stake: “Two reporters who broke the sports story of the decade might be sent away. . . . If journalists can't protect sources, the profession is dead as we know it. Watergate never would have happened under those rules.” – Jay Mariotti, sports columnist at Chicago Sun-Times
Front Page Talking Points is written by
Alan Stamm for NIEonline.com, Copyright 2013
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