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!