Hoosier Source?

An appellate court in Indiana is the latest to weigh in on an interesting question that has arisen as more and more newspapers invite readers to comment online to articles that appear on newspaper Web sites. The question? Should anonymous commenters be covered by state shield laws? Forty nine states offer some sort of protection for news sources. Indiana has a statute, for example, that provides that a media outlet cannot be compelled to reveal the source of any information. In the case before the Indiana appellate court, a libel plaintiff sought a court order compelling the Indianapolis Star to reveal the identity of a commenter known only as “DownWithTheColts.” And given the Colts’ performance in the recently concluded NFL season, this could be just about anybody in town. That person had posted a comment that suggested the plaintiff had hidden money from a charitable organization. The Star resisted the discovery request based on the Indiana shield statute. In its brief, the Star noted that the issue had come up in seven other states, and in six of those cases, the courts agreed that the shield statute applied to the anonymous commenters. The Indiana court, however, was not interested in being part of the crowd. It ruled that the shield statute didn’t apply to the anonymous post because the Star did not use the post in any way, such as to pursue a lead for the story. The court looked at this definition of the term “source”: Source in the journalistic world is a term of art meaning a person, record, document, or event that gives information to a reporter in order to help write or decide to write a story. Given that definition, the decision was a foregone conclusion. The anonymous comment, posted after the story ran in no way helped the reporter investigate or write the story. The court felt that not applying the statute here was consistent with the intent of the statute. Ironically enough, this issue won’t affect the Star going forward. It recently stopped allowing anonymous posts. But it’s a question that remains unanswered in 41 other states. What do you think?