Blogging And The First Amendment

Are bloggers journalists? A simple question that has been revisited and dissected over the past several years as the Internet continues to reshape and develop. In fact, the press as an institution has arguably been the most altered as the Internet has evolved, essentially changing the way we obtain news and information. Not too long ago, the distinction between journalists and the rest of the population was clearly defined. Reporters and writers who worked for news organizations were journalists and everyone else wasn’t. Now, thanks to the web, that once black and white distinction has become grey as we continue to witness the transformation and evolution of ‘citizen journalists’.

Many traditional organizations, including the United States House of Representatives’ would say no, and see a clear distinction between online blog writers and journalists. In general, bloggers have virtual ‘free reign’ over the content they put out, as is protected by freedom of speech in the first amendment. But the question being raised here is ‘should bloggers and online writers be considered ‘Journalists’ even if they aren’t getting paid? Many label bloggers as purely subjective, publishing information that is solely based on opinion, unedited and at times, inaccurate.  Other opinions would say that modern-day blog-writers are no different from early pamphleteers who helped shape the democracy of America (the original T. Paine).

This issue is being addressed at the highest level of our government. Congress is authoring a bill that would protect a journalist’s right to keep his or her sources confidential. In short, this would ban the government from forcing journalists to reveal their sources. The bill defines journalism as follow:

‘the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.’

The House version of the bill, which effectively eliminates bloggers from the equation, adds the following to the definition:

‘…for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such a covered person.’

What is debatable, and where things get a little hazy, is what criteria should be used to determine if someone is ‘just a blogger’ or is considered a journalist by trade? How is the distinction made between the two? Circulation and the total readership? Whether or not the writer is getting paid? If they are a sole proprietor or working for a ‘credible’ news agency? This bill appears to distinguish based on who writes for money, and who writes for passion – with the latter typically providing a more researched and educated article.

My take on this – there is no clear answer here. The issue we are really looking at here is an issue of privacy – as congress seeks to award special ‘source protecting’ privileges to those considered, by law, as members of the press. Many will see this as altering the first amendment and the freedom of speech, but I tend to disagree. Stay with me here.

I believe that journalists, at times, are given too much protection, as they are able to hide behind the right to ‘not reveal’ their sources. This is a misinterpretation of Freedom of Speech. This protection essentially gives a journalist the privilege to write anything they want about anyone without having any responsibility of the facts, which can also protect plagiarism and fabrication of information. The first amendment gives the right of ‘anyone’ to be able to speak out against our government and anyone else, but it’s intention was never to allow anyone to say whatever they want without responsibility of the harm or defamation it may cause. Yes, there are some ethical issues here – and if a journalist is consistently reporting false information, it’s going to come back and bite them where it hurts, but for the sake of argument, the protection of sources can also be seen as the protection of false information.

The bottom line? There is no bottom line. I consider myself an ‘online journalist’. What that means exactly? I have no clear definition. I write my thoughts, I write opinions – But I don’t focus on breaking news and I don’t consider my writing as objective presentation of the facts – but I do consider myself a credible subjective source, if that makes sense. In the end, I see no clear criteria for determination. Quality seems like a solid barometer, but who decides? Monetary gain doesn’t really seem fair, people who right for passion may be far more credible than someone who is being told what to write by the company that pays their bills.

This question won’t be easily decided and will continue to be debated. What are your thoughts? As a blogger, do you consider yourself a journalist? Should all bloggers be given the same rights as journalists? What’s your take on the issue of privacy and protecting sources? Commence Discussion. Engage!


7 Responses
  • Sam Reply

    I agree that there's no clear answer to the question of whether bloggers are journalists. Honestly, as an undergrad journalism student, I was skeptical of the blogosphere. When I actually took the time to dive in it and explore, I really liked what I found, so much so that I became a part of it myself. That said, the Internet is constantly evolving and the blogosphere will likely follow suit, so modifying or creating any form of law would be very complicated.

  • Tim Kerrick Reply

    I disagree – the idea that anyone can be a journalist and export news if the foundation of the free press. All blogs did was make it easier for people to express both facts and opinions with out the need of a printing press. Does that mean that a 15 year old tween with a myspace blog deserves the same protection as Bill O Riley or Larry King? Yes. Do I expect anything intelligent to come out of what those 3 have to say? No.

    But they all deserve equal protection.

    All this law is doing is forcing the idea that you must have a degree and a pay stub to prove your a journalist. Which again, negates the idea of a free press.

    Federal law needs to include either everyone – or not exist.

  • Matthew Reply

    @Sam – Agreed, there is no black & white here, just shades of grey. I studied journalism as well for a bit (was my major before I switched to marketing). And blogging was/is somewhat frowned upon, at least that was the vibe I got, solely because online writing and blogging is seen as the 'death' of traditional journalism. I don't think that is the case at all! Instead, I see journalism developing and transitioning to a more 'interactive' media. People want to be more involved, and publications that are up with the times are promoting interaction amongst readers and providing outlets and forums of discussion (think about what CNN did pairing up with Facebook for the inaguration). Modern technology will continue to transform the way we obtain and absorb information and news.

    @Tim – I think it's a little extreme to compare a 15 year old blogging about her first crush and Larry King (not that I'm a fan). I'm not sure if they are entitled to the same privileges or not – I'm sort of up in the air about the issue overall. I'm not sure that all bloggers should be considered journalists, but then again – why not? Where is the distinction? Readership? Monetary gain? Doesn't seem quite 'fair'. But then again, were the early pamphleteers like Thomas Paine not absolutely crucial to establishing the democracy we are a part of now? T. Paine could have been considered nothing more than a glorified 'blogger' of his time.

  • Tim Kerrick Reply

    @Matt – exactly, where are the lines? And I don't see King and Joe 15 year old as any different. What's news to you isn't news to a kid. And what some kid did at school isn't news to me but is news to other kids.

    so if congress is going to protect the people – they need to protect them….all, not some.

  • Matthew Reply

    Tim, I agree that everyone should be entitled to at least (some) protection. I think the issue that comes in here is that 'certified' journalists have people who review and verify their content before it is published, where as a blogger like myself – I act as the editor – and if I wanted to completely make something up and put it online, I could. In that case, I don't think I am entitled to 'protect' my sources – but should certified journalists be able to protect theirs? Should we all be held accountable to our actions?

    It's my opinion that we are all to be judged and seen under the same light – just because I get paid to write (hypothetically speaking) and work for Time Magazine, should I be entitled to special privileges that a 15 year old girl writing on Xanga about her first crush isn't allotted? Debatable, but something to think about.

  • Matt Cheuvront Reply

    Tim, I agree that everyone should be entitled to at least (some) protection. I think the issue that comes in here is that 'certified' journalists have people who review and verify their content before it is published, where as a blogger like myself – I act as the editor – and if I wanted to completely make something up and put it online, I could. In that case, I don't think I am entitled to 'protect' my sources – but should certified journalists be able to protect theirs? Should we all be held accountable to our actions?

    It's my opinion that we are all to be judged and seen under the same light – just because I get paid to write (hypothetically speaking) and work for Time Magazine, should I be entitled to special privileges that a 15 year old girl writing on Xanga about her first crush isn't allotted? Debatable, but something to think about.

  • rachevincent Reply

    I don't think all bloggers should get the same rights as journalists. There is a big difference between a blog where the blogger just writes down whatever without verifying accuracy and someone who fastidiously ensures that their information is accurate. To use pre-internet, there is a difference between the newspaper writer and the person who writes in their diary with particular effort for accuracy and then shares it with friends, maybe even making copies for their whole community.

    I agree with you. There must be a balance. Something that both strongly encourages the fastidious pursuit of accuracy from journalists, in whatever form, but also protects those journalists as they search for truth to share with their readers.

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