Despite its having been on the table for at least six years now, this question of whether bloggers are journalists won’t seem to rest, and now that the courts are getting involved, we don’t have much choice but to revisit it, as Slashdot, among many others, has done today. Dan Fost’s San Francisco Chronicle story provides a good summary of the issue, as Apple Computer pursues its suit to get some bloggers to reveal the sources of anonymous information they published. But the article misses the most basic distinction at work here.
A blogger is someone who uses a certain kind of tool to publish a certain kind of Web site. The label tells us nothing about how the tool is used or what is published. We went through this discussion a decade ago, when people first started asking whether Web sites were journalism. To understand this, just take the question, “Are bloggers journalists?” and reframe it in terms of previous generations of tools. “Are telephone callers journalists?” “Are typewriter users journalists?” “Are mimeograph operators journalists?” Or, most simply, “Are writers journalists?” Well, duh, sometimes! But sometimes not.
That is the only answer to the “Are bloggers journalists?” question that makes any sense. Bloggers sometimes engage in journalism, just as they sometimes engage in diary-writing, art-making, essayizing and many other forms of communication.
This answer is inconvenient, as we face the question of whether bloggers should receive the same legal protection as more conventionally defined journalists; it doesn’t provide a clearcut legal rule. But, let’s face it, legal protections for journalists have always involved a certain fuzziness. Since, thankfully, the U.S. government doesn’t legally charter journalists — that would be difficult to square with the First Amendment — everyone is free to apply the label to themselves. You don’t need a journalism degree, either. (I’ve been a journalist for three decades and I don’t have one.)
You can try to define journalists by applying the filter of professionalism, by seeing whether people are actually earning a living through their journalistic work — but then you rule out the vast population of low-paid or non-paid freelance workers, and those who are not currently making money in their writing but hope to someday. Apparently most of the existing shield laws use some version of the “you are where your paycheck comes from” definition of journalist (see Declan McCullagh over at CNET for more). That’s one good reason for thinking that they might need some revision.
There’s a good definition of “journalist” sitting right at the top of Jim Romenesko’s journalism blog today (is pioneering blogger Romenesko a journalist?), where CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein says: “I define a journalist as someone who asks questions, finds out answers and communicates them to an audience.” By that standard, a hefty proportion of today’s bloggers qualify.
Does this vast expansion of the journalism population mean that the courts and legislatures are going to have second thoughts about protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources? Perhaps — and maybe those shield laws need tweaking or amendment, given the transformations underway. But any attempt to draw a narrow line around the journalism profession in order to preserve those laws is doomed to fail. There is no way to draw that line — income level? circulation? corporate size? forget it! — that is not ridiculous on its face.
So we’re left with the pathetic spectacle of beloved Apple Computer chasing down some bloggers to find out which of its employees leaked some early peeks at product information. Apple may win, and the laws may contort themselves to exclude the vast new throngs of online journalists from the protected club. But is there any doubt that, in the long run, it’s Apple’s dam-building effort that’s doomed? Whether protected by law or not, the teeming network of the blogosphere is not going to shut down, any more than online music file sharing could be ended by the legal campaign against Napster. In this sense, the whole “journalists or not?” debate is an irrelevant, backward-looking theological dispute.
[I wrote this post this morning but the computer that I run Radio on died for some reason, so it’s going up late, and with some revisions…]
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