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April 8th, 2013
06:02 PM ET

Journalist could be imprisoned for protecting source

Journalism 101: Don't give up a source. But Jana Winter, an investigative journalist for Fox News, is facing hard time for refusing to do just that.

A friend of Winter's told CNN, "She does not want to go to jail but is prepared to. She will not ever give up her sources and this whole ordeal has been very stressful."

In July 2012, anonymous law enforcement sources told Winter that before he went on a shooting spree, Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes gave his psychiatrist a notebook detailing how he planned to "kill people."

This was a huge scoop, and clearly of public interest. It raised key questions: did the system fail the victims of the Aurora shooting? What exactly happened? Winter's scoop helped provide a check on those in power who do not always like to talk about ways in which the system - and they - failed.

In fact, last Thursday, court documents revealed that more than a month before the attack, the same psychiatrist had told campus police that Holmes was homicidal. Yet instead of a focus on how the system failed, we're talking about whether Winter should go to jail for reporting on Holmes's journal, which was found in a mail room after the attack.

Holmes's lawyers say whoever leaked the information to Winter violated a gag order, and they want her to say who it was. This has nothing to do with whether or not Holmes should go to jail, or be sentenced to death, or whether he is insane, or anything having to do with the sick and evil mind that wreaked havoc on the 12 people killed in the shooting.

A Colorado judge has said that he could rule this Wednesday whether Winter has to reveal her source, or go to jail.

So why should you care about this? Because Winter was doing her job, the public can judge how well the judicial, and mental health, and other systems are working.

Matthew Cooper from the National Journal knows a lot about this. He faced similar pressure to reveal his source during the Valerie Plame Wilson scandal.

Cooper was working at Time Magazine, and refused to give up his source, Karl Rove, after Rove led Cooper to believe that Plame Wilson was a covert agent for the CIA.

"The problem is that if people are going to find out stuff - they're going to know what their politicians are doing, what their other institutions are doing - a lot of that depends on journalists using confidential sources," says Cooper.

"If they can't protect those sources, they can't do their job," added Cooper.

There are some exceptions, for instance you wouldn't want a reporter reporting recklessly nuclear codes that could harm the nation's security, but that was not the case with Cooper, and it is not the case with Jana Winter. Winter had a legitimate scoop.

"She was trying to expose how those people in Aurora got killed," said Cooper.

Cooper was looking at potentially 18 months in jail.

"I don't even like bad hotels, so the idea of going to prison was not a happy thought," said Cooper. "But it is something you're prepared to do because it is an important principle. You realize that if you give up your source, it's going to make other potential whistle blowers stay mum."

Imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had given up Deep Throat before blowing the cover off Watergate. The first amendment is on the line here, and so is the future of investigative journalism. If it was not for Winter, who knows if we would even know that warnings had been missed about the Aurora shooter, that the system had failed.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an affidavit in Colorado today, defending Winter.

"Journalists in Colorado and throughout the country routinely utilize confidential sources to prepare news reports on a wide range of issues, including, in particular, on the conduct of government institutions. In many instances, such reports could not be produced and broadcast if reporters could not assure confidential sources that their identities will be protected from public disclosure," reads the affidavit.

"It's not about us, it's not about the journalists, it's about the public. And you wouldn't have known a lot about the Watergate scandal, you wouldn't have known about corporate malfeasance, and other things ... unless journalists are able to use and protect confidential sources."

Reason came to prevail in the end, in Cooper's case. His message to Winter?

"Stay strong, have a good lawyer ... and protect your source."

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