Whenever I joke about becoming an undercover reporter in the seedy world of crime, my mom doesn’t think it’s so funny. We’ve all heard the quintessential story of a journalist who gets too close to his or her story, but what if that story ends in a court case? On Nov. 29, a Sauk County judge ruled the state may not subpoena three Wisconsin journalists in the case of a farmer facing criminal charges. This decision not only has a large impact on legal standards, but journalism.
The trial is for Vernon Hershberger, an Amish farmer from Loganville who engaged in a raw milk operation without a license for his farm, reports the Wisconsin State Journal. In June 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection placed seals on the coolers that held Hershberger’s merchandise because he did not have a license to produce or sell dairy products.
While covering the story, reporter Jessica VanEgeren of the Capital Times, reporter Marc Lovicott of WISC-TV News 3 and reporter Chris Woodard of WMTV NBC 15 noticed Hershberger had broken the seals on his coolers and was again selling dairy products. In December 2011, reports the State Journal, Hershberger was charged with four misdemeanors, and the journalists were subpoenaed to testify in his upcoming January trial.
However, a law called the Shield Law prevents journalists from being subpoenaed to testify unless the information they gained from reporting is not available from any other source. In this case, Sauk County Judge Guy Reynolds ruled the information that Hershberger was selling products again could come from other sources like the customers who bought the products.
This trial run of the Shield Law has deep implications for the interplay between the legal system and journalism. The law, in a way, seeks to protect journalists from what is often an ethical gray area in reporting. In one sense, journalists have the same obligation as any other citizen to report a crime to the proper authorities. On the other hand, it may be seen as a breach of journalistic tradition to do anything more than report to the public. Additionally, a journalist who becomes a whistle-blower instead of an investigator may risk burning sources.
The Shield Law is an interesting piece of legislation in that it helps validate the methods journalists use to do their job. Everyone knows the stereotype of the nosy reporter, but this legislation actually encourages journalists to put themselves in the thick of the action with less fear of legal action if they do. To some extent, it also gives them the legal prerogative to watch the story unfold as opposed to worrying what the legal ramifications might be.
All this would be a huge step forward for Wisconsin journalists, yet there is still uncertainty about the law. The judge told the Wisconsin State Journal depending on what happens during Hershberger’s actual trial, he may reverse his decision and allow the Wisconsin Department of Justice to subpoena the reporters.
Journalists are going to keep doing what they’re doing, but the Shield Law has the power to be either another tool in the reporter’s toolbox or slightly dampen their journalistic approach. If the law is upheld, journalists may be able to go into controversial stories with a little less apprehension about asking the tough questions. If it is reversed, although one hopes it is not the case, they may be a little more careful about how close they get to a story.
Taylor Nye ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in archaeology, biological anthropology and Latin American studies.