When is a citizen not a journalist? Court decision clear on blogger

Oh poor neglected blog. I haven’t updated EM for a week or so. I think my writing juices were used up in the final push to get the News 2.0 manuscript off to the publisher. It’s gone and this weekend I thought, “toe in the water Marty.”

And this bit of news is too “good” to miss out on. A court in New Jersey has made a landmark decision that may well help us to better define the concept of citizen journalist.

In a decision that attempts to better define who is protected by New Jersey’s shield law, the court said Shellee Hale’s writings about Too Much Media LLC, which supplies software to online pornography websites, amounted to nothing more than a letter-to-the-editor in a newspaper.

[Blogger not pro]

Well, well. I wonder what NYU professor journalism Jay Rosen – famously the author of the quip about the people formerly known as audience will say about this?

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

[Jay Rosen, PressThink]

In News 2.0 I actually go to some length to nail down the whole Cit J thing because I believe that the term is tossed around without any really solid definition beyond what Jay Rosen has offered. I contrast that view with the idea that to be a citizen journalist, one has to actually be engaged in an act of politically or ideologically-motivated citizenship.

Otherwise, you might really only be an amateur, an eye-witness or an accidental reporter. My take is that all of those categories – including citizen journalists – can be better understood as sub-categories of what I am calling “user-generated news-like content”.

Of course, you’ll have to read the book to get the full account of this. I’m sure Allen & Unwin would not want me to give it all away here – tempted as I am.

The legal fight over who is and who isn’t a journalist is an aspect of the techno-legal time gap. That unresolved contradiction between the technology – the means of journalistic production – and the social relations of production – in this case the legal framework of shield laws designed to protect “journalists” from forced disclosure of sources, etc.

The New Jersey decision goes to some length to create a working definition of a journalist that I think is very interesting and reflects some of the arguments I use in News 2.0 about the economic relationship that journalists are engaged in – a relationship of salary or other payment for their work.

Hale, a former Microsoft employee and a mother of five from Washington state, contended she was acting as a journalist when she posted comments to a message board about a security breach at TMM and allegations that its owners had threatened her. She argued the postings were part of her research into a larger story about the online pornography industry.

TMM sued for damages, claiming Hale was not working as a journalist and was not covered by the shield law, which protects journalists from revealing their sources.

In an age where technology has far outpaced the law, courts have conceded there has been no clear decision on whether writings on the internet, particularly by bloggers, are protected by the First Amendment or New Jersey’s shield law.

Maybe the court’s got this wrong and I am sure there will be some who think I’m an old Trot with too much invested in political economy.

I think I’m right on this issue. Some background in my review of Atton & Hamilton Alternative Journalism

3 Responses to When is a citizen not a journalist? Court decision clear on blogger

  1. kutarere says:

    I am not and will probably never claim to be a journalist, cit or otherwise, just a lowly browser who is interested by this and that (and this happens to be a ‘this’). I accept your version of things, and the court’s decision, and this is not presented as argument. But, one thought does come to mind in this techno age of ours. A person is witness to a newsworthy event and takes pictures with their cell phone, and then record a commentary to go with it. If this witness is ‘rewarded’ for their Jo Cit enterprises do they then qualify as ‘journalist’ under this ruling (and your definitions)?

    [Kutarere: Yes, probably – it would perhaps qualify as a piece of ‘freelance’ journalism, or ‘amateur’ journalism. I would qualify that by adding that it doesn’t make the person a journalist forever, it is a single situational moment. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. EM]

  2. […] my exposition about why I’m arguing for the term User Generated News-like Content (UGNC), rather than “citizen journalism”,  I make the point that the once radical posture of […]

  3. […] of this issue on Gizmodo and elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here, but on the heels of this New Jersey case, it seems that the scope of shield laws and the definition of ‘journalist’ and […]

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