Two competing versions of a federal shield law for reporters — a law regarding a journalist’s right to keep their sources confidential by banning the government from forcing them to reveal information on whistleblowers — is reportedly once again sparking the debate of how to define a journalist and whether or not blogging is considered journalism.
The House version’s definition of a journalist excludes bloggers, freelancers, independents and nonprofit journalists. The Senate version covers a person who is engaged in journalism. Both bills have exceptions for national security, terrorism and when reporters are eyewitnesses to a crime.
The bills were re-introduced to provide new, though limited, protection against subpoenas for journalists, and both versions contain a range of exceptions. Similar legislation was introduced in 2007, when the House version passed overwhelmingly and the Senate version passed easily out of committee but died without a full vote when the session ran out.
Congress Has 2 Different Definitions of Journalist
As noted by the Citizens Media Law Project, the 2009 bills differ in how they define journalists.
The Senate bill covers a person “who is engaged in journalism,” defining them as those who regularly gather, prepare, collect, photograph, record, write, edit, report or publish news or information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.
The House version puts limits on who is covered in a way that could potentially leave most bloggers and many others outside the protective zone of the shield — “covered person” means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports or publishes news or other information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination on 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.
The term “substantial” isn’t defined but it’s easy to assume that many bloggers, student journalists and those who freelance for magazines that pay poorly could find it difficult to utilize the protections afforded by the bill if the House version became law.
Who qualifies as a journalist and the debate over so-called reporter’s privilege has been an issue for decades.
Congress Has a Problem With Citizen Journalism
As noted by the Student Operated Press, essentially, if journalism is a hobby or passion you do as a public service or if you are a freelancer without a boss, the government reserves the right to force you to tell them who told you something — like the government tried to do with New York Times Journalist Judy Miller under the Bush administration.
It appears that Congress has a problem with citizen journalism done by bloggers for the sake of journalism and for the good of Democracy and could potentially — yet again — pass unconstitutional legislation if they create a law abridging the freedom of the press, which is a violation of the first amendment, by defining who is and who is not considered press.
When they base their definition of a journalist on who does it for money and who does it for the passion they do us all a huge disservice. Also noted by the Citizen Media Law Project, it will be a shame if a shield law passes with the House language that effectively shuts out most bloggers and other independent journalists. It will be journalism history, but with an asterisk.
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