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Who Is a Journalist?

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What is journalism, anyway?

At its most fundamental, journalism is the gathering and disseminating of information. But it’s much more. Like editorializing. And writing well-considered reviews. Those are forms of journalism too.

But what is a journalist in an age when anyone with an internet connection can disseminate information or opinions to the whole world? Is it someone who comes out of college with a journalism degree? Someone who gets paid to write or edit news or commentoary?

What about someone who blogs or writes articles for free?

In the old days it was easier to say what a journalist was. Reporters for certain publications and outlets were “accredited” by their publications, which were the “recognized” outlets. As such these reporters had special privileges. They were granted access to places other people weren’t—and they were protected by “shield laws” which allowed them to keep their sources secret. Conflicts between reporters and the justice system over confidential sources were so well known, they even made for great fictional drama. Even Mary Richards once went to jail for refusing to name a source.

Journalists receive thousands of state and federal subpoenas every year, though they’re seldom threatened (however absurdly) with accusations of treason, like today’s poster boy, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who, essentially, does just what a journalist traditionally does: gathers information (often from secret sources) and disseminates it.

Whether an unpaid blogger is entitled to the benefits of a shield law is the subject of a case the New Jersey Supreme Court is deciding. A private eye named Shellee Hale undertook on her own to look into corruption in the pornography industry, and a company that tracks the industry’s sales sued her for defamation. Hale invoked the state’s shield law to protect her sources. A lower court ruled that she was not a journalist entitled to that protection; last week New Jersey’s highest court heard arguments in her appeal. But if Hale isn’t a journalist, where do you draw the line?

Politicians are trying to define journalists anew. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has suggested a two-tiered approach, for example. But such measures smack of trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube. Word is out—or rather, words are. And photos, and videos.

Empowering bloggers and citizen-journalists can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, can shield laws survive in the long run if professional journalists lose their special status because everyone can participate? Journalists always lived under a storm cloud, but at least they were issued umbrellas. Now we may all end up under that same cloud, without a shred of nylon to protect us.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Jon, here’s Merriam-Webster’s take on it:

    Definition of JOURNALIST
    1a : a person engaged in journalism; especially : a writer or editor for a news medium b : a writer who aims at a mass audience
    2: a person who keeps a journal

    I’d say we bloggers qualify in the spirit of the word; therefore, we should have the same protections as those who are paid.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Jon, you’re a blogger. I assume you’ve written hundreds of blogs published on the Internet. Have you ever been asked in court to reveal a source?

    You’re also co-executive editor of Blogcritics, which has published tens of thousands of articles by bloggers since its launch in 2002. Have you ever heard of one such blogger being asked in court to reveal a source?

    Unless you can answer in the affirmative and briefly discuss the issues involved, I’d have to say this topic is a nonstarter. It’s my impression that bloggers–in contrast to professional journalists–are almost never asked in court to reveal a source.

    Even in the New Jersey case you cite, the defendant’s status as a blogger is very much in dispute. According to the news story to which you link in ¶7, the defendant “contends she was working as a journalist when she set out in 2008 to investigate corruption in the pornography industry. She created a website, Pornafia, to report her findings but did not publish any articles.” (Emphasis added.)

    How exactly does a private investigator who has never published any articles qualify as a blogger? Merely by creating a sham website? It doesn’t pass the smell test.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    I should clarify that comment #2 relates only to bloggers in the USA. I have no idea what the situation is abroad, especially in undemocratic countries.

  • STM

    I would think a journalist is someone who is paid by a news organisation or a publisher to chase, write, put together, or edit stories, or TV news programs, magazines, or newspapers, or who receives some remuneration for the dissemination of news … and where those things listed above represent a person’s primary source of income or have been the primary source of income.

    For instance, a person who is a psychologist and who writes a weekly lifestyle column in a newspaper is still a psychologist, rather than a journalist.

    Not all journalists have been formally trained, but most have. I would think a cadetship or a degree would count too.

    The rest of it – blogging included – that doesn’t fall into the above categories is a hobby, not a profession.

    I put a shed up in my backyard recently, but I wouldn’t call myself a builder.

    But I do work as a journalist. Today I’ve spent a full day working for a news organisation and have been paid for it. I’ll spend the rest of the week doing it as well.

    The differences in regard to what is and what isn’t and who is and who isn’t aren’t as subtle as many people seem to think.

    There is a clearly defined yardstick.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    But then, Stan, not all bloggers inhabit dark corners of the internet, pecking away at their keyboards for a tiny audience.

    People like Matt Drudge, Markos Moulitsas, Arianna Huffington and even Perez Hilton are bloggers, but by your definition they are also journalists.

  • STM

    Yes, true, Doc … but contrary to some views, journalism doesn’t have to be serious. It has other roles to fill, too. It can entertain as well as inform. I would think even Perez Hilton falls into that category, much as we might blanch at that notion.

    Snobbery has its place but it has no place in this argument, however.

    And if they are getting paid for it, then they’re journalists.

    Or, they’re publishers.

    Making a living should be the key. Like I say, not all journalists are formally trained, but those who are not are still journalists if what they write, broadcast, edit or publish falls into the category of disseminating news (of whatever kind) and is the main source of remuneration.

  • STM

    Regarding snobbery. It has its place regarding a person’s choice when it comes to the news source they prefer.

    But the quality and impartiality of that delivery is still not the yardstick.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Does Australia have shield laws for journalists? If so, are bloggers covered? If not, it isn’t necessary to reclassify anyone from blogger to journalist to effectuate coverage. Simply extend the law to include both categories. But the real question is why bloggers would need such protection in the first place.

  • STM

    Alan, I left you a pretty innocuous comment on here yesterday in reply to your question. I’m hoping Doc, Clav or Rosey can resurrect it. I had about four comments in a row rejected yesterday, and all were pretty innocuous.

    It might have been about the time the spammers come out to play. Hope so, because there was nothing in them that should have raised alarm bells.

    Rosey, if you’re around, can you whack ‘em up??

  • troll

    surfer dude – the site has been down…something to do with the wrath of Athena

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    But then again, no comment in Alan’s mind is innocuous.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Stan, the tech department did something last night their time that broke the comments system. No comments have been able to be submitted at all, so it isn’t possible to re-instate them.

    troll, nothing at all to do with la Athena at all, see above.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    “toll” was imputing a magical spell to a perfectly ordinary set of natural events. Imagine the gall!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Techies have an irresistible compulsion to fiddle with something that’s working perfectly well until it no longer does. They can’t help it. It’s in their DNA.

    Anyone whose job involves working with computers is well aware of this.

  • STM

    Journos are used to having their work whacked on the spike (“Who wrote this shit?”, “Ah, that’d be me.”) … even if it’s now a virtual spike created by nong-head geeks.

    More purple prose disappears into the into the vortex.

  • LynnfromBC

    Last year the results of a precedent setting case were published regarding privilege and how revealing sources affects journalists in Canada.

    The case has been cited in the common law and could be a reference in upcoming hearings in both the US and Canada. It addresses bloggers as well in the orginal article.

    I tried to post this in the morning, but alas it did not pan out well. I hope I have this HTML code correct.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    What’s I suppose germane to this topic is that Assange is claiming journalistic immunity to fend off possible charges of treason.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    or terrorism, I should add.

  • Heloise

    Funny thing happens on your way to get a job in journalism, print that is, you better have a degree in journalism, or an allied discipline to get a job there.

    IMO bloggers are writers, authors have published a book and are also writers. There are different types of journalism that no one has mentioned here or at the dreaded HP. There are journalists, many anthropologists, who report on health and medicine. They have no need to be hauled into court to reveal sources. That is so wrong headed. That would be needed only in a criminal case, investigative or criminal journalism.

    That is only a small part of the types of journalisms. I can’t believe that was not addressed. Originally there was no need for specializing in journalism but today that is the evolution of the thing. Thus you will see MDs who also act as journalists for their respective employers. They are doctors first, journalists second. And they are probably paid well.

    Professional anything means: you are paid for your services. If I am paid to write for somebody then I am a professional in that area and not just an amateur or blogger. It works that way in sports I know.

    If you have other skills or life experiences/job titles that lend themselves to mass media then you might be considered for a job in journalism. Having any degree from Harvard helps. I know that too.

    I find this article and the one from HP sorely lacking in sense. The world does not revolve around POLITICS or political-type journalism.

    Heloise

  • Eme

    As an investigative journalist, I see a change from corporate media reporting to citizen journalism because people are tired of corporate media reporting on issues they want in the news.

    I stopped watching ABC News because their nightly news became a social magazine style report. I applaud citizen journalist.

  • Adnan Hussain Mustafa

    A journalist who could reach the minds and thinking of the people is a successful person.He shouls help in solving social problems not increasing sufferings of people .journalists must adhere to facts not emotions ,let others evaluate you can tell and others say yes or no .Journalists must address topics of concern to the society we should first tell them how to satisfy their needs before giving lessons on welfare life