Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment cheer Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, as she enters the Capitol on the first day of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Two former journalists want to give reporters in Virginia protections if they refuse to reveal confidential sources.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, was the lead reporter of the Gainesville Times and Prince William Times in Northern Virginia from 2006-2015. Roem introduced the same proposal — called a shield law — last year, which was her first session as an elected official.

Shield laws protect journalists from being compelled to share the source of information that was given to them confidentially. Often, if that information is sought in a criminal or civil court proceeding, journalists can be found in contempt of court.

“Virginia is one of only 10 states in the country without a shield law,” Roem said in a statement. “We haven’t even caught up to our bordering states by enacting a shield law to protect the freedom of the press. It’s time to get it done.”

Since last session, Roem has driven around the state to talk with members of the House of Delegate Courts of Justice Committee and worked on tweaking some language in the bill that gave delegates pause last year. She said she’s managed to get more support for it.

“It is a nonpartisan issue to protect the freedom of the press and it needs to be a nonpartisan issue,” she said.

Some lawmakers were worried the law would allow journalists to withhold information that could stop an illegal activity, like a kidnapping, Roem said. Her draft legislation now includes a provision that says information can be compelled to be produced if there “is an overriding public interest in the disclosure of the protected information, including preventing the imminent threat of bodily harm to or death of a person or ending actual bodily harm being inflicted upon a person.”

There are other exceptions in the bill. A court could compel a journalist “to testify about, disclose, or produce protected information” if it finds that the protected information is “highly relevant and necessary to the proof of an issue material to an administrative, civil or criminal proceeding” and if it is not obtainable from another source. Authorities must exhaust “all reasonable methods for obtaining the protected information from all relevant alternative sources.”

The law makes a broader point about the value and importance of journalism, she said.

“We believe it is important for both journalists and citizen whistleblowers to be protected from threats of prosecution or jail,” said Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association. “Our democracy depends on journalists to shine a light on government corruption and mismanagement.”

After Roem left her post as a reporter in Virginia, she spent a year at the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland. One of her colleagues was Brian Karem, who was jailed in 1990 in Texas for refusing to say who helped him land an interview with a prisoner.

“Virginia needs a shield law to protect and promote fact gathering — the essence of real journalism,” Karem said. “When reporters can pursue real news without fear of being jailed, they provide desperately needed and vital information that assists in keeping government transparent and our citizens well-informed.”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Roanoke, also signed on to Roem’s bill. He was a television reporter for WDBJ in Roanoke before running for office in 2017.

Hurst also authored a bill to better protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights at public colleges and universities.

There have been a number of concerns about student journalists’ ability to fully exercise their First Amendment rights, Hurst said. Notably, the University of Mary Washington stopped print publication of its student newspaper last year and the Student Press Law Center was concerned it was because of content.

“Tackling tough issues whether you’re a high school student or a professional journalist means you have to sometimes expose things that may make the comfortable uncomfortable, that may expose truths that those in power don’t want to be revealed,” Hurst said.

“But it is essential we have safeguards in place here in the commonwealth to protect reporters from reporting the stories that matter to readership, stories that hold truth to power and stories that make an impact on their communities.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Contact her at [email protected]