Committing Acts of Journalism

Co-authored by Eric Matthies -- Co-Producer/Director of the documentary film, Killing The Messenger: The Deadly Cost of News

The question of who is and who isn't a journalist should no longer be in question. Modern methods enable modern reporting. To quote journalism professor Jeff Jarvis:

"There are no journalists, only the service of journalism."

The importance of the definition is in direct relation to who is protected under the "Free Flow of Information Act of 2013." This bill is essentially a Federal Shield Law designed to protect journalists from having to disclose their confidential sources. A version of this law was shot down in 2009 but is back waiting for a vote by the 113th Congress after public outcry over the secret subpoena of Associated Press phone records and the calling out of James Rosen as a "co-conspirator" in a leak case. Additionally, the Justice Dept. is putting an undue amount of pressure on NYT reporter James Risen to testify in an Espionage Act case against a CIA employee.

The bill is not about extending special privileges to journalists but rather:

"To maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media."

Sounds good on paper until you allow politicians to (again, just like in 2010) express frustration with bloggers and other non-traditional reporting.

With the bill on the table prior to August recess, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment to narrow the category of people protected by the shield bill. As Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press reported: She suggested that the bill should not cover an organization like WikiLeaks or "a 17-year-old who drops out of high school, buys a website for $5 and starts a blog." In other words, Ms. Feinstein thinks that anyone who's not on a payroll doesn't count as a journalist.

"This bill is described as a reporter shield bill," Feinstein said. "I believe it should be applied to real reporters."

Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ended the meeting before the committee could debate Feinstein's amendment, but not before Schumer offered a retort to her conservative definition of journalism.

"There are people who do journalism in different ways than they used to," Schumer said. "They should not be excluded by this bill."

The bill should be focused on protecting acts of journalism, not defining who is or who isn't a journalist. Anyone can commit an act of journalism, and do so without getting a degree in journalism or working for any well known media outlet. Ironically, as mainstream newspapers and networks cut back on staff, they increasingly rely on freelancers, 'citizen reporters', bloggers and social media to investigate and report stories.

Josh Wolf, an independent journalist jailed 226 days in 2006-7 for refusing to cooperate with a federal investigation which sought his sources says,

The moment we start to define who is and who isn't a journalist in a legal sense as the U.S. Government saying, "You're a journalist, you're not a journalist"...I mean that's the strongest move against the first amendment you can imagine because Congress should make no law infringing on the power of the press or the role of the press. Well, if you decide, "You're the press and you're not the press" -- that sure sounds like infringing to me.

In 2005, it seemed the debate about who is and who isn't a journalist was over, but apparently with conservative thinkers and those who haven't adapted to the new ways of disseminating information, the debate continues. And those people are determining your freedoms.

Jay Rosen (not to be confused with James Rosen) states:

The truth is, that as an activity, journalism belongs to the people themselves, it belongs to the public sphere, it belongs to civil society and the highest expression of it, the most serious practitioners of it may be professional journalists, but I think professional journalism itself would lose something if it was restricted to people who work for big media companies or who make their living that way. So this is something that makes journalism different as a profession compared to brain surgery or flying a plane, or even being a psychotherapist. It's a possession of the political community itself. And if you look at the roots of journalism, you go back in history, or if you understand first amendment law, you know this because the first amendment doesn't protect a class of people, although journalists, some journalists like to say erroneously that their profession is the only one mentioned in the first amendment. If you actually read the first amendment, it doesn't mention any particular occupation or group. It doesn't say anything about journalism, it says "freedom of the press shall not be abridged by Congress," and what that means is everyone has the right to publish what they know. That's what it means.

Shield Laws aren't simply for protecting journalists and their sources, they are to ensure the ability for investigative journalism to continue informing the public and strengthening democracy. Cherry picking who gets protected is another way of criminalizing journalism. This debate should not be about what defines a reporter; it should be about journalism remaining a product of a free press.

(Mr. Wolf and Mr. Rosen were interviewed for the documentary "Killing the Messenger: The Deadly Cost of News". The preceding quotes are from those interviews.)