Define “Journalist”

At the J-School, we’ve been exploring the question of whether bloggers are journalists for a couple of years, in both classroom experiments and in conferences that have drawn fascinated/scared journalists and the blogging elite. The question might be boiled down like this: Journalists can argue that “if it’s not edited, it’s not journalism” — credibility comes down to trained research, trained writing, and trained editing. Bloggers, on the other hand, may argue that “if it’s edited, it’s not blogging” — spontaneity has been widely regarded as a signature trait of blogging.

But more and more mainstream publications are letting their journalists run blogs on the side (with or without the pub’s imprimatur), both with and without editorial oversight. And more and more bloggers are breaking news stories wide open, finding angles that mainstream journalists have missed (Trent Lott’s hateful past, Dan Rather’s slip, etc.)

The area gets even more gray when you consider that many blogs are multi-person efforts, and may have unofficial editorial bodies at work behind the scenes. There is nothing inherently unjournalistic about blogging – the blog is just a publishing platform. Whether “real” journalism is being done has no necessary connection to the content management system in use.

With the Apple law suit against ThinkSecret making front page, coming to grips with this gray area has itself become news. Traditionally, journalists have been able to use California’s Shield Law to prevent having to reveal their sources. At issue is whether the Shield Law also applies to bloggers. That is, what kinds of writing activity count as journalism, and which don’t? Because it would be almost impossible to come up with a satisfactory definition that wouldn’t exclude either A) thorough research/writing by bloggers or B) spontaneous reporting by journalists, we’re probably going to end up with an all-or-nothing situation: Everyone gets to lean on the Shield Law, or no one does.

My supervisor Paul Grabowicz, quoted in the SF Chronicle:

“Under the First Amendment of the Constitution, I would be hard-pressed to find any distinction between bloggers and journalists … There are some potentially really bad things that could come without any distinction. Principal among them is, if there is no distinction, things like shield laws that protect journalists go away, because they apply to everybody else.”

Chris Nolan of The Chronicle:

This is a big deal. The people who work in newsrooms trade lousy conditions and pay for power and influence. The people online who are now coming along are stealing the power and influence that people in newsrooms used to have. The newsroom has left the building.

Music: The Rachels :: Saccharin

5 Replies to “Define “Journalist””

  1. Pingback: The Power of Many
  2. Hmmm – while it’s definitely a slippery slope, the consequences in saying bloggers are journalists are a lot scarier than saying they aren’t. Consider:

    A) Like your boss says, if they’re the same, shield laws go away. I think we can all agree that shield laws are very important to have in place.

    B) If shield laws are extended to bloggers, then anybody can effectively say anything about anyone provided that its posted on their blog without fear of being held accountable – some dirtbag can simply default to saying that what they blogged came from a confidential source (of course, there’s some exaggeration there, but you get my point). Lord knows we already know there are plenty of unethical people with blogs out there…

    Of course, the flip-side is to discount the important discoveries broken by bloggers that, in some cases, still haven’t made it to the mainstream media. In thinking-while-I-type, I would hazard to guess that if I was found myself in a whistle-blower situation, I would want to go to an accredited, professional journalist working for reputable media to break the story – not a blogger.

    As for the Apple thing, I’m sorry, but as a lot of people have pointed out – it’s really not a big deal. Consequently, I would say these guys who decidedly DID NOT offer-up a Watergate-style situation (rather published legally-protected trade-secrets of a publicly-traded company) should not be offered any sort of protection. Wherever you stand on the bloggers == journalist argument, you would have to agree that these guys are abusing the shield laws they’re trying to hide behind. Scooping a new product prior to public announcement is not why shield laws were inacted.

  3. Brian, re: B) above: The same argument already applies to journalists of course (any journalist can “make up” sources) – but granted, there is more oversight and accountability in mainstream journalism than in blogging.

    I definitely agree that shield laws were not intended to protect slimeball leakers — perhaps shield laws will be tweaked as a result of this case, which may end up being its most important outcome.

  4. Scot, you’re right on both counts (something I didn’t address in my first comment) – I would hope and expect that there’s more oversight/accountability/professionalism in mainstream journalism.

    I’m not only worried about this in terms of the damage that outfits that ThinkSecret can do, but also the damage that can be wrought in the political (or any other-, for that matter) arena. Lord knows unethical bloggers should be held accountable to the lies and libel being “printed” on their blogs about political candidates…

    On a side-note, John Gruber has just changed his arm-chair legal analysis of the Apple situation…

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