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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