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The butterfly effect

by Donna Emert
| April 9, 2010 9:00 PM

MOSCOW - Chaos theory suggests that one small event can set profound change into motion. It is often called "The Butterfly Effect." The story of a 1982 drug bust in Deary, Idaho, covered by Daily Idahonian reporter Jim Wright, had that kind of impact: Wright's story led to the establishment of reporter privilege in Idaho. Reporter privilege protects the confidentiality of a news source, even under subpoena.

MOSCOW - Chaos theory suggests that one small event can set profound change into motion. It is often called "The Butterfly Effect."

The story of a 1982 drug bust in Deary, Idaho, covered by Daily Idahonian reporter Jim Wright, had that kind of impact: Wright's story led to the establishment of reporter privilege in Idaho.

Reporter privilege protects the confidentiality of a news source, even under subpoena.

University of Idaho Journalism and Mass Media student Chris Murray, and recent JAMM graduate, Kyle Howerton created a documentary film, "Watchdog Press: Making the Case for Reporter's Privilege in Idaho," illustrating how this important First Amendment right came to Idaho, on the wings of an unlikely butterfly.

"I think this film is worth seeing because it focuses on the right of the public to know when the government has lied," said Murray. "Essentially, that is why Jim Wright risked jail time to report the true story of a marijuana raid which law enforcement had exaggerated, and refused to reveal his source."

Murray became aware of the Wright case in a University of Idaho Media Law class taught by JAMM professor Dinah Zeiger last summer.

A panel discussion about the case included Wright, whose contempt charge was challenged in the Idaho Supreme Court. The newspaper's attorney, Charles Brown, also was a panel member.

"I found the case interesting and continued the discussion with Brown after class regarding the court's decision in the case," said Murray, currently a senior in JAMM. "Dinah Zeiger had then asked me if I would be interested in working on a documentary concerning the Wright case."

Murray began work on the film in July 2009, doing background research at the library and Latah County Courthouse, reviewing microfilm for hours at a time in search of relevant articles and documents. Working with then-student videographer Kyle Howerton, they began interviewing sources on film in August.

The documentary includes interviews with Wright, then Daily Idahonian editor Kenton Bird, publisher/editor Jay Shelledy, and publisher and owner of Tribune Publishing, A.L. "Butch" Alford.

At the time of the interviews, Wright was the managing editor at the Twin Falls Times-News. While in Southern Idaho talking with Wright, Murray and Howerton also took the opportunity to interview former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Bakes, who wrote several opinions in favor of reporter's privilege in Idaho. Murray made a second trip to Boise with student videographer Chris Riddlemoser to interview former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, who wrote a concurring opinion in the Wright case supporting reporter privilege.

Murray finished the script in January, "using mainly quotes from the interviews, with a minimal narration to connect the story and make it flow," he said. "I have learned a lot in this process about doing historical research and working with film. Writing for screen production is very different from print media. I wrote all the interview questions and conducted all but one interview; by the last interview I think I had gotten the hang of how to conduct a good film interview."

True to a long established tradition of journalists working on deadline, Howerton was still tweaking the film a week before its debut. "Finalizing sound bites from interviews, tweaking the narration a little bit, and putting other shots on top of the interviews to help tell our story," he explained.

Filming the documentary was an education for both students: "It teaches you time management and how to work on a limited budget and tight schedule," said Howerton.

Being student journalists, rather than professionals also can be a hurdle to overcome when you're trying to access busy professionals, like members of the State Supreme Court, said Howerton. "I think it's easier when you're a real production company with a real budget."

Howerton graduated last December and now works at the University's Video Production Center.

Howerton believes reporter's privilege is a right with implicit responsibilities. "I'm not a fan of hiding behind the anonymous source, but sometimes it's just not safe to say something," said Howerton. "Reporter's privilege is a necessary aspect of journalism, but a reporter can hide behind an anonymous source. You have to have accountability. You have to be able to stand behind what you write, and stand behind what you say.

"I don't think we need a blanket reporter privilege law," said Howerton. "We still need to have some kind of accountability for journalists."

"This project has shown me how fragile the balance can be between reporting the truth and simply accepting official government stories," said Murray. "If journalists don't question the official story and do what it takes to report the truth and correct errors in reporting on government, then democracy is in jeopardy. I think this is an important reminder of how new some of these privileges are: the Wright case was decided in 1985."

"Freedom of speech is the principle of the First Amendment, and one of the founding principles of democracy, one we often take for granted," Murray said.

Donna Emert is a spokeswoman with the University of Idaho University of Idaho Communications.

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