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Senator asks SPJ to help create laws to open records, protect journalists

By Billy O'Keefe

GERGANA BOBEVA / The Working Press
Sen. John Cornyn urged SPJ members Thursday to help him work on a legislative proposal to make government information more open and available to citizens and to shield from criminal prosecution journalists who use controversial information obtained legally.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas holds the SPJ Code of Ethics during a presentation he delivered about politics and the press on Thursday at The Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Dave Stone/Working Press)

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas holds the SPJ Code of Ethics during a presentation he delivered about politics and the press on Thursday at The Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Dave Stone/Working Press)

“Your job is to get to the bottom of the story and report accurate information to help people be better citizens,” said Cornyn, R-Texas, a longtime supporter of freedom of information who has a journalism degree from Trinity University in San Antonio.
Earlier in the day, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cornyn, a member of that panel, voted for the bill, which would make it easier for journalists to protect their confidential sources. Similar bills are pending in the House.
Cornyn said he is optimistic about the future of the legislation, but he added that more work should be done to guarantee its effectiveness.
A main concern, Cornyn said, is that the law would define “journalist” and distinguish those who should be shielded from criminal prosecution.
“We would be required to decide who is a journalist and who is not,” he said.
Cornyn added that there is a difference between traditional print and broadcast journalists and newly recognized bloggers and citizen journalists. In order not to abuse their privileges, writers should not be entitled to absolute protection when using anonymous sources, he said.
SPJ President Christine Tatum suggested changing the angle of the issue to focus on a specific work when determining whether it should be protected.
“Is there a way to shift the paradigm to the act, rather than the person?” Tatum asked the senator. He responded that it was an interesting suggestion and should be thought and discussed further.
David Carlson, online journalism professor at University of Florida, asked Cornyn whether he thought student journalists should be included in the professional-journalist definition. Some members of the audience expressed the same concern.
Cornyn didn’t give a specific answer, but he encouraged SPJ members to make suggestions and help lawmakers craft adequate legislation.
Steve FitzGerald, independent online publisher of Lakewoodbuzz.com and a former public relations practitioner, referred to accreditation practices in the PR field. He asked whether an accreditation from a national organization such as SPJ would make recognized journalists official enough to be protected by law.
Cornyn agreed the idea had potential, but he said it might be challenging to do.
“I don’t know whether it will be practical, but it would be helpful,” he said.
After Cornyn spoke, FitzGerald expressed concern about the idea of accreditation. He said it takes a long time for PR professionals to earn it and that may not be the preferred route for journalists because of the distinctions that exist between traditional reporters and new-media practitioners, such as bloggers and citizen journalists. At the same time, he said, it is a suggestion.
Cornyn said an important aspect of the final legislation would be making sure that it would be applied uniformly in different courts and cases.
Cornyn co-sponsored the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which calls for strengthening the Freedom of Information Act by requiring government officials to respond in a timely fashion to FOIA requests.
“It would close a number of loopholes in the process that have caused months and even years of delays,” he said, adding that some information requests are 15 years old.
One of the problems with FOIA in its current form, Cornyn said, is that many government employees don’t know their responsibilities and are not sure what to do when faced with an information request.
SPJ supports both bills and has raised more than $30,000 in the past year to support a campaign for passage of the federal shield law.

The bill number for The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 is S.2035.
The bill number for the OPEN Government Act of 2007 is S.849.