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Editorial board: A shield law would protect the public's right to know
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Editorial board: A shield law would protect the public's right to know

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Newspapers

Newspapers are bundled and then loaded onto trucks to be shipped across Wyoming.

Take a moment to think about how much more you know about your community thanks to investigative reporting.

You know what led to the sudden departure of the University of Wyoming’s former president Laurie Nichols. You know that a Wyoming tribe used a secretive political group to lobby the Wyoming Legislature against gambling regulations. You know that an autistic boy at a Casper elementary school was handcuffed after his school called the police on him. And you know the stories of multiple men who say they were sexually abused by a retired Catholic bishop in Wyoming.

Investigative reporting is the reason you learned about deep morale problems at the Casper Police Department a few years back. Around the same time, it showed that the city’s former fire chief sent an email to a subordinate about removing “the bad parts” of video evidence after a fire escaped the Casper landfill and destroyed 14 homes.

What do all of these stories

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have in common? They all brought to light critical information about your government. And they all required confidential sources. Such anonymity is often painted in a bad light, but due to fear of reprisal, whistleblowers need confidentiality to protect their livelihood, and sometimes, their safety.

That doesn’t stop government entities from sometimes seeking to uncover the identities of whistleblowers and other confidential informants. And if they succeed, future whistleblowers are less likely to come forward. Given this reality, all but two states have protections for journalists who seek to keep their sources confidential. Called shield laws, they block authorities from forcing journalists to give up their sources or face jail time for refusing to turn them over.

Wyoming is one of two states without a shield law. We hope this is the year that changes. A bill to enact shield law protections is now in the Wyoming Legislature and has received bipartisan support, with 11 sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Authored by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, the bill would protect journalists from having to give up their sources. But it would really protect the public’s right to know.

That’s because confidential sources are an essential part of the investigative reporting process. And if they are protected from being outed, they are more likely to share information about government corruption, wrongdoing and waste. In a small government state like Wyoming, that’s what people want.

A few lawmakers have noted there are challenges to defining exactly who is a journalist. Unlike many professionals, there is no licensing or credentialing process for journalists. We’re confident, with so many shield laws on the books in this country, that lawmakers can create a definition that’s workable. Similarly, lawmakers can address the other major concern we’ve heard about the shield law: what if revealing the information in question is a matter of life and death? The House Judiciary addressed this issue by including language to require journalists to share their sources if failure to do so will create an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.

It’s no secret that journalists and state lawmakers don’t always see eye to eye. But we think this is a bill that most in the Statehouse should want to support. If you’re a fan of small government, if you’re a fan of transparency, you want whistleblowers to feel comfortable bringing government waste and corruption to light. A shield law makes that more likely.

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