Ishani Desai, a journalist covering Kern County courts and public safety for the Bakersfield Californian, was found in contempt on May 24 after refusing to hand over her unpublished notes of a jailhouse interview to a defendant in criminal proceedings. Desai and her attorney have asserted that the threshold requiring a reporter to turn over privileged work in accordance with California shield law has not been met. Desai’s stand is a meaningful act in establishing the credibility and independence of the fourth estate at a time when the media is struggling to maintain the trust of the public.
California shield law protects reporters from being subpoenaed in civil and criminal cases, except in the case of a subpoena by the defense. There is a precise bar for when a reporter is compelled to turn over privileged information, but in this case, it has not been clearly ascertained. Desai has been reporting on this criminal case involving two separate defendants since 2022. Defendant Sebastian Parra agreed to an interview with Desai, and after the article was published, Defendant Robert Roberts’ Deputy Public Defender subpoenaed the notes of that interview.
Desai indicated that while the court’s decision was one she understood, it set too broad a precedent and compromised her journalistic integrity. While this was a necessary stand, her refusal to turn over interview notes is only a small piece of the decades-long struggle between the press and government institutions over the idea of a free press. The Espionage Act of 1917, in combination with the events of Sept. 11, provided a galvanizing point for the targeting of protected sources and the intimidation of the media. The Department of Justice prosecuted a record-breaking eight journalism-related cases under the Espionage Act during the Obama administration. The rise in the criminalization of journalism is a national issue that did not start and will not end with Ishani Desai. This latest attempt by the courts to control the work of reporters does not inspire confidence that the media is not controlled by government institutions.
Information collected from protected sources should be considered on par with privileged attorney-client communications, which allows attorneys to effectively represent their clients. Trust is an essential tool for journalists, and the holding of any journalist in contempt for refusing to reveal sources or confidential information is an attack on the foundation of a free and independent press. Sources are left with a situation in which they cannot trust a reporter to respect confidentiality and the very real possibility of criminal prosecution.
Furthermore, the inclusion of journalists in court proceedings at all creates a compromise for legitimate journalists. Asking reporters to participate in trials is ethically murky at best. Journalism is about what is fundamentally true based on all of the available facts, while, in comparison, the U.S. and California legal systems represent an approximation of justice, at best. They should not and cannot be allowed to do so at the expense of journalistic integrity. The law and what is right are not synonymous, and Desai’s noncompliance with the law represents exactly where those values are misaligned.
This case is both about journalists having the right to do their jobs as much as it is about building trust between the media and the public. Journalists should not be forced to choose between justice and integrity, especially when the institutions that demand this ethical compromise fall short of their own standards.