Are Bloggers Journalists? Should They Get to Use Shield Laws? (Updated)

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UPDATE: The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that blogger Shellee Hale's comments on a message board are not protected under shield laws and she must reveal her sources.

From the Star-Ledger:

"To ensure that the privilege does not apply to every self-appointed newsperson, the legislature requires that other means of disseminating news be ‘similar’ to traditional news sources to qualify for the law’s coverage," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the 5-0 court. "We do not find that online message boards are similar to the types of news entities listed in the statute ..."

Read the full ruling in Too Much Media, LLC, et al. v. Shellee Hale here.

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April 25, 2010: Ever have a negative experience with a company and your first impulse is to use the power of your website to go online and write about it? You may want to think twice, since a ruling in New Jersey against a blogger last week may have implications for whether or not bloggers are journalists (and therefore protected by shield laws) -- and whether you may need to be able to back up and prove any claims you make online.

Last July, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that Shellee Hale, a blogger, was not a journalist -- and therefore not protected by shield laws, which normally protect journalists -- when she went online and "defamed the company" [Too Much Media] "by writing, among other things, that the firm had violated state laws protecting consumers against identity theft," according to the ABA Journal.

Superior Court Judge Louis Locascio stated in the July decision, "To extend the newsperson's privilege to such posters would mean anyone with an e-mail address, with no connection to any legitimate news publication, would post anything on the internet and hide behind the shield law's protections."

Last week's appellate court ruling allowed the company, which according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, "supplies software to online pornography websites," to continue with its slander lawsuit.

Shield laws are there to protect journalists who need to serve as whistleblowers on sensitive issues prior to a legal ruling. They state that journalists do not need to reveal their sources and can refuse to testify about information they write in an article. Hale tried to utilize shield laws when the company demanded that she back up her claims and reveal her sources.

Yet bloggers often act as journalists -- journalists outside the mainstream media -- and this ruling could muzzle ordinary citizens from using their voice to point out the foibles of companies without protection from lawsuits. At the same time, this ruling could also protect citizens and companies from having slanderous statements made about them on the Internet. It's a ruling that cuts both ways.

At the heart of the case is the question of whether bloggers are journalists -- and if so, should they be held to the same standards as well as receive the same protections.
Journalistics
points out that the self-perception of bloggers as journalists has risen.

PRWeek and PRNewswire recently teamed up on a study that found 52% of bloggers consider themselves journalists. The last time they did this study, roughly a third of bloggers felt this way. Why do more bloggers consider themselves journalists these days?

Wordcount wrote about this debate years ago in regard to a situation in Oregon, where a local blogger wanted to attend executive meetings. Michelle Rafter makes a strong case for serious freelance writers untethered to a particular news organization and extends that to others. "But what about bloggers who never worked for a newspaper or magazine but are covering Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan, are they reporters?" she adds. "What if they cover community news, tech start ups or the presidential election? Should they get credentials to meetings and events? Speaking as a long-time reporter, freelancer and blogger, I say, yes, they should."

I love Childwild's take on the debate, that there is a need for both mainstream media journalists and bloggers as journalists:

I don't think the role of professional journalists will be replaced by amateur bloggers ... The world needs -- and continues to create venues for -- seasoned professionals whose entire job is to be the 4th estate and hold government and society accountable. What the proliferation of independent bloggers does is loosen the stranglehold mainstream media has on information and opinions. Yes, there's a lot of noise in the blogosphere, but there's a lot of strong, interesting signals too. Maybe in time we'll comprise a 5th estate holding the media’s big guns accountable.

What is your opinion? Are bloggers (especially those covering current events or breaking news) journalists? And should they be held to the same standards as mainstream media journalists and afforded the same protections?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

Recent Posts by Melissa Ford

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