Why Bloggers (All People) Need To Count As Journalists

Virginia blogger faces down subpoena

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Recently WebProNews readers fired off a couple hundred comments regarding the US House of Representatives’ definition of journalist in the Free Flow of Information Act, a law shielding journalists from having to reveal their sources. A new development in Virginia involving a citizen journalist shows why this definition needs to be broadened to include bloggers, and any other type of journalist.

Public Citizen, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression have stepped to the defense of Waldo Jaquith, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based blogger subpoenaed to release a wide swath of information to a court in the process of hearing a defamation case.

Waldo Jaquith
Waldo Jaquith
by Jen Fariello

Jaquith, an independent blogger who runs
cvillenews.com, blogged about a lawsuit filed by Thomas Garret, a media personality, against Charlottesville weekly “The Hook.” Garret’s attorneys are demanding Jaquith produce all communications with sources for that blog post, that he identify all anonymous commentators on the blog, and all readers who read the blog post, according to Public Citizen. The suit seeks emails to and from Jaquith relating to Garret or the lawsuit, and any documents relating to information obtained, generated or created in writing the resulting article.

Paul Alan Levy
Paul Alan Levy

“One of our country’s founding values is that the person standing on the soapbox in the town square has the same freedom of speech they have at The New York Times or the Toledo Blade, for that matter,” said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. “Bloggers such as Jaquith may not be ‘traditional’ journalists but they play an integral part in the way people get their news today.”

An attorney for the ACLU warned that if the subpoena is allowed to stand, bloggers would have to look over their shoulders whenever they write about a pending lawsuit, which could have a chilling and devastating effect on free speech.

This case is state specific, and the attorneys stepping in on Jaquith’s behalf are arguing he’s covered under Virginia’s own journalist shield law. Nationally, under the House of Representatives’ proposed version of the Free Flow of Information Act, Jaquith would only be covered by federal shield laws if he makes a living from his blog and he has some sort of boss or employer.

We didn’t bother to ask Jaquith if he made money from his local news blog (judging from lack advertising, we’re guessing not) because that question is irrelevant. So is the question of whether he has a supervisor of some kind. If he considers himself a local watchdog, that should be enough for anybody, and he should be protected under any shield law targeted toward protecting freedom of the press.

In an interesting twist, this case is happening in Virginia, the home state of Rep. Rick Boucher, the sponsor of the House version of the Free Flow of Information Act. Without extending protection to bloggers, passion publishers, nonprofits (and now anonymous commentators, it would seem), Boucher and the slew of cosponsors on this bill (below) are abridging the freedom of the nonprofit, independent press, a clear violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

First Amendment

Rep. Boucher did not return request for comment or defense of how the House has defined “journalist,” how it is not a violation of the First Amendment, or whether legislators intend to expand the definition to include the press in all its forms. Currently the bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where hopefully these problems will be brought to light.

*House of Representatives Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 cosponsors: Mr. PENCE, Mr. CONYERS, Mr. GOODLATTE, Mr. YARMUTH, Mr. WALDEN, Ms. ZOE LOFGREN of California, Mr. COBLE, Mr. WEXLER, Mr. BLUNT, Ms. BERKLEY, Mr. WU, Ms. SCHAKOWSKY, Ms. LEE of California, Mr. DELAHUNT, Mr. MACK, Mr. MCCAUL, Ms. NORTON, Mr. WOLF, Ms. WOOLSEY, Mr. MURPHY of Connecticut, Mr. UPTON, Ms. SLAUGHTER, Mr. BERRY, Ms. GIFFORDS, Mr. GONZALEZ, Mr. PUTNAM, Mr. WEINER, Mr. PAYNE, Mr. COHEN, Mr. KENNEDY, Mr. RADANOVICH, Mr. COOPER, Mr. DOYLE, Ms. BALDWIN, Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ, Ms. ESHOO, Mr. BUTTERFIELD, and Mr. REHBERG


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  • http://www.scottrobertsweb.com Scott Roberts

    …that bloggers CAN be journalists, but just because you’re a blogger does not necessarily make you a journalist. It’s like the square/rectangle or the world wide web/internet analogies. I’m a blogger, but I don’t really consider myself to be a journalist because I don’t report on hard news that often. If you’re an independent blogger AND are a source for news, then yes, you are one.

  • http://randomplaza.net Brave Agent Pubeit

    The US government is always having crooked laws. The people that make the laws hate the bill of rights so much…

  • http://www.anasrifai.com anas

    I would have to agree, as a matter of fact, just from watching news on TV one would realize that when it comes to real news journalists are using blog media as a source of their information. CNN’s iReport is nothing but an incredible free source of news.

  • http://www.doseofclarity.com Dose of Clarity

    I think you hit it on the head by saying that an individual should have the same right to freedom of speech as The NYTimes. Journalism is going to rely on blogging in the future or they are done. Nobody’s rights should differ, regardless if you are an established paper or a blogger at home.

  • Joeseph

    Jason, what do you care about online news writers after your “consider the source” crap about WND and the Obama Wiki scandal that has proven to be 100% correct? You’ve proven you are just another free speech Nazi who only wants free speech if YOU agree with that free speech. Please do us all a favor and quit writing or blogging. For anything you say now we must “consider the source”.

  • http://waldo.jaquith.org/ Waldo Jaquith

    To answer your question, I do make money on the site, in that I sell a small amount of advertising, although my advertisers and readers know that I give all of that income (not profit, but income) to charities.

    And, Scott, you’re right

  • http://www.bikeservant.com mtb

    I would welcome and read more detailed analysis on blogs in various subjects. If the bog contained factual detail, which some do, thats what I find most interesting. I think bloggers could help orgs. determine if marketing campains are working, if people like ther products etc.

  • http://www.tanzaniasafarisafrica.com Safari Man

    Who cares if bloggers are journalists or the other way round. Its all about writing good stuff that the internet audience wants. As long as the info is cool, it will be read no matter the sources.

    I hate the concept of journalism…just to make it sound like its a big thing ! Ok we should come up with a new term, blognalism !! hehe

  • Ray Richards

    Most bloggers are not journalists… mind you many so called old media ‘journalists’ aren’t really journalists either and are just opinion-spouting talking heads.

    Real journalists adhere to strict source rules, attempt to provide a balanced perspective, and do their utmost to not cloud the issue with personal opinion and bias. Most have also studied in the field for years in advance of claiming the title.

    The fact that I happen to own a scalpel and a white coat, doesn’t entitle me to call myself a doctor… just because you can speak English (or whatever language you are blogging in), can fill in an online form, and press a button, doesn’t make you a journalist.

    • Jason Lee Miller

      Ray, I’m with you on most points, especially because I am formally trained in journalism myself. Bloggers haven’t paid their dues to be called, by profession, “journalists” and there is a sense of an old-world devotion to objectivity involved–in philosophical sense I agree with trying to be objective, even if I don’t believe it can ever realistically be achieved.

      One point here though. This isn’t about how you and I define a journalist, it’s about how the government defines who is and who is not a journalist and thereby chooses who has freedom of the press and who doesn’t. If the government can define who is and who isn’t a journalist or who or isn’t considered “press,” then the government can deny freedom to those it deems are not.

      My opinion here is that the government should make no such distinctions in a free country and if Farmer Joe wants to come out of his barn and write up an expose about how crop prices are manipulated by Big Farm Business or about how certain fellows he knows in the local government are in cahoots to divvy up his land, the Farmer Joe is from that point a journalist in the loosest sense of the word and should enjoy free speech protection, and that protection should be enforced by Joe’s right to keep quiet about how he knows those fellows are in cahoots and who told him.

      This is not a pedantic argument about the definition of journalist. This is about the government not defining the term at all.

      • Ray Richards

        Agreed on all points. There should be protections for whistleblowers etc. I just don’t know if they should be considered journalists — however this argument is semantic I suppose.

      • Steve

        “Trained Journalist” huh, Jason? So that means that YOU like most of the other left wing Nazi types who run the MSM have had lesson in sucking Obama’s virtual dick? Sure looks like it with the slam you have World Net Daily for REPORTING the TRUTH about Wiki and the elimation of all negative stuff about Obama. You are nothing but just another left wing nut case on your knees to give liberals blow jobs online. You’re not a journalist. You’re just another piece of crap moron giving your opinion AS journlism.

        • Jason Lee Miller

          Thank you for that well thought out and insightful post. As for the World Net Daily post, the writer of that “expose” created his article by instructing a researcher who worked for him to make those edits. Turns out the editor was right to delete and ban him for manipulating that record. These same editors do a decent job of keeping left wing nut commentary out of the Bush entry. The WND author did no service to journalism by fabricating a scandal.

          As for my piece about that, it was an editorial and editorials carry opinions, and I expressed mine, which was that WND is most certainly a publication with an axe to grind and as such they weren’t a credible source for that story. And I was right. You didn’t like my opinion and are now trying to make me pay for expressing it. Too bad. It’s my opinion and deal with it. It’s flattering you consider me a part of the main stream media. It’s also incorrect. It’s sad you think that because I happen to like Obama (as did a majority of this country, if you remember) that makes me somehow a liberal nut.

          I’m not. I wrote conservative columns exclusively at one time. If I’ve liberaled up a bit it’s because I’ll admit if I’m wrong about something or it’s because I watched an 8 year disaster. I voted for Bush the first time. If I give credit to Obama or criticize Bush it doesn’t place me into some pigeon hole you’ve created for me. I’m a conscientious observer and call it like I see it.

          You are obviously not a conscientious observer, but someone clouded by hatred and vitriol using the comment forum we’ve provided to you to take shots at me. That’s fine. I’m a big boy. I’ve been called both Nazi and Commie (which are opposites) and a slew of other nastiness. And I signed up to deal with nuts like you by putting my name and face out there and having the nerve to have an opinion about something that someone could possibly disagree with. Maybe that does make me a nut. Writers make enemies. The good ones do. I suppose every time someone has an objection I should give it all up and become a woodworker or something. Everybody likes woodworkers, right?

          In truth, you know nothing about me other than I said something you didn’t like. I can make (and certainly have made) a number of assumptions about you based on your rhetoric, but I’ll have the decency not to post those here. If you want to know (and I’m sure you don’t) I am liberal where I feel appropriate to be and conservative when the situation demands. I believe in liberty, and I also believe in justice, in fairness, a host of other noble things, and I am saddened by the large number of people who would demonize and make enemies of fellow Americans because they have differing opinions. I think that’s the biggest part of what Americans rejected last November. Sorry you’ve been rejected with them. You might want to do some soul searching there.

          So there you go. I’ve dignified your remarks with a response. Put down the stones and we’ll chat further. Until then, kiss off.

        • Guest

          The terms “left wing Nazi” and”free speech Nazi” (which one of your fellow right-wing Commies used) certainly show a deep understanding of what Naziism was (and is). Hello..?

          When you use those terms, you show yourself to be FAR closer to an actual Nazi than your target could ever be…

          But your argument is certainly well thought out and presented in a dignified fashion. It sure opened my eyes. (That was sarcasm, BTW, an insidious liberal tactic).

          • http://www.Nurburg.eu FaTe

            first off lol ^ Anyone remember the original discussion topic and not having to jump to super bad comparisons which entirely make no sense, The guest reply is quite right in your post essentially does nothing but make you look stupid.

            At the same time his post is a classic example of how an everyday website post can cause a rapid response from users as blogs do and yes people who blog do need some sort of protection but illegal is illegal is illegal if the blogger participated in the act then they should be held accountable, Documenting the facts of an event is words on a screen and nothing more!

    • http://www.vbpoutsourcing.com KJ Rodgers

      I agree most bloggers are not considered journalists. They should however be protected when they do in fact have a credible source and sources that do not need/want to be revealed.

  • http://www.michaeltyler.co.uk mikey B

    A journalist is someone who documents events.

    Whether this be blog, print or otherwise.

      Radio Freedom

    If you document for free, doesn’t this give you more credibility than someone who to documents for money?

      Money making enterprise

    It’s well known; it’s difficult for a blog to consistently break stories due to lack of resources.

    However, with blogs, it’s not difficult for an individual to publish or break a new story, and this is something that needs to be protected.

    • Ray Richards

      So according to your definition, my 8yo cousin is a journalist because she records events from her life in her diary.

      Journalism is a profession; just because you can write and do it for free doesn’t give you more credibility. Who do you think has more credibility, the man whose livelihood depends on getting it right, or some guy on the web who heard something from some other guy in a bar and feels like posting it on his blog?

      Unfortunately, the point you allude to (corruption and complacency in journalism) is plaguing our industry; though there are still those who adhere to the high standards set by our forefathers.

      Your final point about legal protections for bloggers is well taken.

      • http://joshwolf.net Josh Wolf

        Your 8-year-old cousin is certainly a journalist, admittedly, she’s not breaking any news with her diary, but there is probably no one better qualified to write about her life than her

  • http://www.medlawplus.com jjray

    There is a very good discussion of the Free Flow of Information Act, here (commentary next to act sections):

    The definition of “covered person: and “journalist” is found at the top of page 11 of this document. Jason, I think you are mistaken when saying “Jaquith would only be covered by federal shield laws if he makes a living from his blog and he has some sort of boss or employer.”

    First, there is absolutely no requirement that under the act that a blogger be a “boss or employer”. Here is what the act says:
    “The term ‘covered person’ means a person engaged in journalism and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affilate of such covered person.”

    Essentially the point is that the act covers not only persons engaged in journalism but, also, person who supervise those who engage in journalism. This allow the act to protect editors and producers who access to confidential source info.

    If you look at page 11, item 5 (definition of “journalism”) on the document I linked to, it’s rather clear there is no requirement in the statute at least that the individual “make a living” from blogging to be considered a journalist. The definition focuses on the type of activity engaged in rather than the medium of expression (i.e., internet blogger versus newspaper). There is no distinction made between these groups and no distinction between full-time and part-time news gathers unless the act has been modified from 2007 bill I linked to.

    • Jason Lee Miller

      Jjray, you’ve linked to the FFOIA from 2007. The one in question was introduced last month in the House of Representatives by Rep. Boucher and is currently referred to the Judiciary Committee. From 2009’s House version (linked to above in the article), the language verbatim is:

      (2) COVERED PERSON- The term `covered person’ means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public 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 covered person.

      If by include the language doesn’t mean a supervisory role is required but that supervisors are included under the legislation, then the language needs to be clarified. But it does say “for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain” meaning that only those paid for journalism are covered.

  • http://hairybuddah.blogspot.com HairyBuddah

    Think about this for a moment. You are an employee of The Widget Company. You get mad at your boss. You take a whole bunch of company secrets to a blogger like me. I blog for fun about once a week. I publish all of Widget’s secrets, and you immediately say “Ah Ha, great stuff here, I will start my own company using the Widget techniques publicized in Hairy’s Blog.

    You have just committed a crime. Now you want me to protect you as the source of the information that I published. Heck, maybe you will even hire me as your public relations department.

    For that matter, I generally take issue with the concept that a journalist should have a “right” to conceal a source that has committed a crime. But maybe that’s just me.

    But if you HAVE to have that kind of shield law, then it really ought to be limited to professional journalists to whom SOME kind of consequence could befall if they abuse their journalistic powers.


  • Guest

    There is a huge difference between bloggers and journalists.

    99 out of 100 bloggers spin the facts to fit a political position.
    99 out of 100 journalists present the facts without interpretation.

    Bloggers do not report the news, they spin it, like FOX.

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