In 2010, a survey conducted by PRWeek and PRNewswire found that over half of all bloggers consider themselves to be journalists. This was up from just a third of all bloggers two years before.
The question of whether or not bloggers are journalists is an old one and it can be an important one legally. As the EFF puts it, journalists can often times keep confidential sources private, gain extra protection in libel cases in the form of retraction statutes and receive fee waivers when Freedom of Information Act requests.
But while all of this is true, The Atlantic, in 2011, argued that we shouldn’t care whether or not bloggers are journalists, that the issue isn’t very important and that reporters at large publications and organization have much stronger protections than the title “journalist”.
Still, the subject is a sensitive one for bloggers, who are often eager for the weight and credibility that comes with being a journalist. When blogger Crystal Cox was ruled to not be a journalist in 2011 and ordered to pay millions in a defamation lawsuit filed by the founder of an investment group, after denying her protection under the state’s shield law that protects journalist sources, many bloggers took up arms. However, once the details of the case came to light and it was clear just how wrong much of Cox’s information was, attitudes slowly changed.
But it leaves the bigger question unresolved: Are bloggers journalists? To get the answer, we have to first look at what the question is really asking and try to drill down to the important answers.
Are Bloggers Journalists?
The question “Are bloggers journalists?” is misleading. Bloggers and journalists are two overlapping groups. Many bloggers are journalists (and vice versa) but many journalists don’t blog and many bloggers aren’t journalists.
The question of what does or does not make one a journalist, from an ethical perspective at least, hinges less upon the medium used and more on the methodology. A journalist, meaning one who practices journalism, is simply one who collects and edits news for presentation through the media.
Is a TV reporter less a journalist than a newspaper one? Is an investigator writing for a magazine a superior reporter to one working in radio? Journalism already involves many different type of media. A blogger working for the New York Times, is no less a journalist than one writing for the print edition, the question is not a matter of the medium one chooses.
If you engage in journalism, you’re a journalist, regardless of the media.
But What About the Law?
The law, however, is where things get a bit trickier. Unfortunately, most of the laws written to protect journalists, including the aforementioned shield laws (which are handled on a state-by-state basis) were written well before there was an Internet and make no mention of online journalism at all.
This makes the issue complex and dicey, but the long and short of it is that you have to look at the specific laws that impact what you are trying to do. For example, if you’re wanting to protect a source, you’ll want to look up your state’s shield law, if one exists at all.
For most laws though, the issue has more to do with how you conduct your site and your investigation than it does where it’s posted. If you get your facts straight and don’t libel anyone, you don’t to worry about retractions or shield laws.
What About Press Access?
A similar problem arises when trying to get press access to an event or a person. Though government institutions can’t set arbitrary rules for who will and will not receive a press pass, private institutions can. However, typically, what’s more important when trying to apply for a press pass is your reputation and your audience (namely how large and how relevant it is).
A small blog no one has ever heard of is going to struggle to get press passes anywhere but a large one, especially in a relevant field targeting a desired audience, will have a much better chance.
In short, for press access, you need to focus on growing your site and your reputation before trying to get a badge.
Should I Care?
Probably not. If you’re doing the types of things where you might obtain some benefit from being legally identified as a journalist, you’re probably a journalist. If you can have a legitimate claim to shield laws, FOIA, press access, etc. then you probably are a journalist in your field, regardless of how you are distributing your work.
However, the Atlantic was right. The advantage a reporter at CNN or The New York Times has over you isn’t they qualify as a journalist and you don’t, it’s that they are backed by large corporations with a history and reputation and you can’t match. They have the legal resources to end problems and names that can open doors.
In short, what separates a blogger from “mainstream media” journalist isn’t the medium they use, but the size of the organization and the history behind their outlet.
As a blogger, regardless of whether you consider yourself a journalist, you have a duty, legally and ethically, to be accurate with what you publish, avoid infringing copyright and obey all of the relevant laws related to privacy. You also have an obligation to be a decent human being and not cause undue harm on others.
If you do those things, your legal status as a journalist probably doesn’t matter a great deal. You can still get press passes when relevant, you can report from any public event or public meeting and you can use the same laws to gather information, even if it at times may be slower and more expensive.
Rather than hand-wringing about whether or not you are a journalist, it’s more important to focus on doing the best journalism you can, contributing as much as possible to the larger debate and following the laws the best you can.
If you do that, you’ll be doing better journalism than many people who wear the “journalist” badge proudly and you’ll be going a long way to ensure that the laws that are lagging behind catch up quickly.