Journalists continue to be targeted for sources as U.S. weighs federal shield law

As we end 2023, we have been reflecting on what this year has meant in the world of whistleblowing.

Whistleblowers with whom we work have continued to make impact: Uber Files whistleblower Mark MacGann testified to parliaments across Europe about Uber’s unorthodox lobbying tactics and workers’ rights; Twitter whistleblower Anika Collier Navaroli testified to U.S. Congress about Twitter’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol; ex-Facebook content moderator Daniel Motaung is suing Meta and its contractor Sama, accusing them of human trafficking and union-busting; the list goes on.

But a growing trend that must be highlighted this year is the increased pressure on journalists to reveal their anonymous sources, many of whom are whistleblowers.

In the U.S., states such as Nevada, Kansas and Virginia, authorities endangered journalists’ anonymous sources through newsroom raids, subpoenas and attempted access of devices — even if the journalist had died. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, a French journalist was arrested and questioned by police about a 2021 report that relied on leaked classified documents. According to her lawyer, there is now an attempt to force her to identify her source.

And just this month, another case has caught our attention: Former Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge faces being held in contempt of court if she does not reveal her source for investigative stories about a federal probe of a Chinese American scientist. A judge ruled earlier this year that she must reveal how she learned about the probe after the scientist who was the target of the probe sued the federal government. The scientist alleged that “Herridge had been given leaked materials that violated her privacy.”

The scientist’s lawyers have been unsuccessful in learning the source of the leak via deposing government and other officials, and now argue only the journalist can provide the source of the leak.

Journalists like Herridge are at risk of these situations because there is currently no federal “shield law” in the U.S. that allows reporters the privilege of refusing to disclose their anonymous sources.

Most U.S. states have their own shield law, but the laws vary and most do not contain absolute protections for sources, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

There has been some progress this year: In the U.S., press freedom advocates celebrated a major win for confidential sources after a Nevada court ruled that a reporter’s privilege survives death and can be claimed by the journalist’s newspaper. This was the first time in the U.S. where a court has held that, when a reporter dies, the confidentiality of their sources and their news-gathering materials don’t die with them. In the Nevada case, it prevented the local government from finding out about anonymous sources within its own agencies via the slain reporter’s devices.

But there is more work to be done.

For starters, countries like the U.S. need federal shield laws to protect both journalists and their whistleblower sources. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill in Congress to establish “appropriate limits on the federally compelled disclosure of information” obtained by journalists. But the bill has yet to get a floor vote after lawmakers introduced it in June.

The Signals Network works with sources daily who are working with journalists to expose wrongdoing and follows these developments closely.

For journalist inquiries, email Sarah Gamard at