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Journalists always lived under a storm cloud, but at least they were issued umbrellas. Now we may all end up without a shred of nylon to protect us.

Who Is a Journalist?

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.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and 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. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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