The other day I was asked to write an article for PBS’s Journalism and Innovation site (PBS – Mediashift) – on the subject of “Who is a Journalist?” spurred on by the recent and reoccurring debate on ‘what is journalism’, in the digital age:
Last month, the Crystal Cox verdict re-energized a debate among journalism’s most passionate and articulate thought leaders and professionals by begging the question: Who is a journalist? Just about anyone with a laptop or cell phone can use free technology to create quality media and reach audiences larger than any newspaper or television network. Indeed, we are all publishers now. But are we all journalists now, too?
The article explored some of the issues surrounding the legal definition of “journalist”, as opposed to any more casual definitions floating around. Apparently some took issue with my assertion that there needs to me a specific definition of “journalist.” The interesting part is that the feedback came mostly from those who would describe themselves as journalists. Their contention was, citing The First Amendment’s free speech and free press protections, that anyone can be called a journalist. Apparently any definition limiting who is recognized a journalist – particularly in the eyes of the law – was an affront to The First Amendment, apple pie and the American way.
First – I encourage those with an opinion or skin in this game to read the article. At the heart of my ‘argument’ (though I would hardly call my article an argument) is that each state already has laws regarding protections for journalists – particularly protections for journalists needing to shield their confidential sources.
As many journalists point out elsewhere, if the term ‘journalist’ applies to “just about anyone with a pulse” then the term has no meaning. Put another way, if we start defining a journalist as anyone who can set up a blog, then every man woman and child needs to be issued a press pass. The Crystal Cox verdict illustrates the issue: The judge in the case cited an apparently anachronistic law that defined a journalist as someone working for a major media (presumable newspaper, radio or television) news organization. The woman was a financial blogger whose posts had been fixated on one financial company, and she was constantly blogging unflattering and damaging information about the company and its founder. She was sued for liable because the company claimed (among other things) that the information was defamatory and false. She claimed she could not prove the information was true without revealing the name of her confidential source, and she sought protection under the state’s ‘shield law’ for journalists.
So the question is indeed important: Is she a journalist? And is she protected by state ‘shield laws?” According to the judge’s interpretation of the Oregon law, no, she is a blogger and not a journalist. Of course this set off a firestorm of commentary from journalists and bloggers everywhere about how misguided (to be kind) the ruling was. But apparently it is not clear to certain judges and certain laws as to who is a journalist, and who is not. And, as I concluded in my article, if journalists don’t come up with a definition, then others – judges and lawmakers – will be the ones to define the profession of journalism.