Is It Up To The Government To Define Who Is And Is Not A Journalist?


One understandable reaction to the Obama administration targeting journalists for surveillance is a desire to protect journalists from government intimidation and abuse. But the problem with these so-called media shield laws is that the politicians usually want to pass along with them a definition of who gets protection under the law and who doesn’t.

Or, put another way, who is a journalist and who isn’t.

And that’s just what a Senate panel did recently, voting on a specific definition of journalist that leaves some freelancers and independent journalists (like bloggers, etc.) out in the cold:

A Senate panel on Thursday approved a measure defining a journalist, which had been an obstacle to broader media shield legislation designed to protect reporters and the news media from having to reveal their sources. …

The vote was 13-5 for a compromise defining a “covered journalist” as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years.

It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years. A federal judge also would have the discretion to declare an individual a “covered journalist,” who would be granted the privileges of the law.

That is, to be sure, a very broad definition but it’s not going to apply to someone who does journalism part time. Like, for instance, a blogger who covers his/her local government. Or someone who does freelance work part time.

And even if we found this definition acceptable, the problem is the precedent it sets wherein citizens only get legal protection if their reporting about the government meets some government definition.

That is a very, very dangerous road to walk.

“I think journalism has a certain tradecraft. It’s a profession. I recognize that everyone can think they’re a journalist,” Senator Diane Feinstein is quoted as saying.

But it’s not just that anyone can think they’re a journalist. Anyone can actually be a journalist in this age of digital, democratized media. If you catch a politician saying or doing something controversial with your phone camera and upload the video to YouTube, that’s an act of journalism, and it should be no more or less protected than any other act of journalism.

Whether or not the act of journalism has legal protections shouldn’t hinge on the professional background of the journalist. We should all be equally free to engage in the act of journalism.

Deifning journalism for the purposes of excluding some and including others is an unequal application of the law.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • borborygmi45

    I think you are right

  • Chris Brownell

    Rob, perhaps you could link to the vote in the senate to see who voted and how in the committee.
    If you have that handy. I would like to know if Cantwell or Murray or Hoven or Heitkamp voted on it. Thanks.

  • Roy_Bean

    I can’t wait for the new Secretary of Journalism who will head up the Department of Information and will provide us with all the information we need to know.

  • The Whistler

    Journalism is an act, not a job classification.

  • RCND

    What’s next if this passes? Licensing them? Which of course implies “professional” standards they decide on. A bar-type exam to get that license?

    • Roy_Bean

      What they are doing is applying the principles that they have applied to the 2nd Amendment to the 1st Amendment. It will start with “common sense” regulation in response to some crisis, real or imagined, but they will never stop until the 1st Amendment is gutted as badly as they have gutted the 2nd Amendment. The time to get off a slippery slope is while you are still at the top.

  • Lianne

    That must be the reason Heidi will now only speak with journalists and not ‘commentators’, huh?

  • zipity

    Of course the Government should determine who is a “journalist”.

    How else will they be able to control the narrative and bend it to their own desires?

  • yy4u2

    Sedition Act of 1918, welcome to the present. Your comrades have been awaiting your arrival.

  • DWHoover

    I wonder if the definition of “journalist” depends on who you work for. If I pen a column for Media Matters,, or The Huffington Post is that the definition of a “journalist” while working for TheBlaze or merely makes me a “blogger”?

  • JoeMN

    Malcolm Muggeridge is turning over in his grave

  • Thresherman

    Under the proposed amendment Thomas Paine would not qualify as a journalist.

  • banjo kid

    Definition means to me: it is a writer a journal keeper or a diary keeper and last but not least a writer for a news paper or outlet I am sure the definition will suffer greatly under this progressive stooge of a government we now have. I would like to define a politician and have that one stick , like this : one who holds or tries to obtain a position with the state or federal government for the sole purpose of enriching ones self and to make laws that no one can keep or the maker of so many laws a lawyer could not keep up with them. I also feel we have to many laws and there should be a moratorium so we could take time to weed out the silly ones and the ones that just do not work . Ten year stop on law making send the congress home and the senate close down everything except the dept. of defense.