MADISON, Wis. Reporters and their confidential sources would be protected under a bill passed yesterday by the Wisconsin Assembly.
Backed by the state's newspapers, broadcasters and other news-media outlets, the proposal is being heralded as a protection not only for journalists but also the anonymous sources who come to them with hot tips.
"Investigatory journalism would be much less than what it is today if there weren't sources willing to take huge risks real or perceived to reveal waste, fraud and abuse," said Peter Fox, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Reporters essentially serve as a conduit for those whistleblowers, he said.
Wisconsin already has court rulings, but no state law, offering some protections for reporters. If the bill were to become law, it would make Wisconsin the 38th state with a so-called shield law protecting reporters and their sources.
No one is on record as opposing the Wisconsin measure. Similar measures in other states have drawn opposition from prosecutors who fear such protections make it more difficult to gather evidence in criminal cases.
Before the bill becomes law it must also pass the Senate and be signed by the governor. Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat and former three-term state attorney general, is generally supportive of the idea but hasn't reviewed the bill yet, said his spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner.
The Senate bill, sponsored by former broadcast reporter state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, is awaiting a hearing.
The Whistleblower Protection Act was drafted in consultation with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Under the bill, judges could order reporters to testify, produce information or reveal a source's identity only when it is "highly relevant" to the case or critical to at least one party's argument. Attorneys would have to show they couldn't get the information any other way and there was an overriding public interest in disclosing it.
The bill passed the Assembly on a voice vote.