If you want a society that is free and vibrant and successful, part of that formula is the free flow of information, of ideas, and that requires a free press. A free press is a foundation for any democracy.
Are Bloggers Really Journalists?
The main stream media, the blogoshere, the courts, and various levels of government and businesses have wrestled with this very question. Jonathan Ellis at The Sioux Falls Argus Leader indicated in an E-mail that some of what bloggers do can be considered journalism; As this very blog broke some fair sized stories. So far, Mr. Ellis and others has been very gracious in giving credit where due. I would like to thank the Argus Leader for that and hope they will continue, and maybe a bit more. Mr. Ellis also stated most of what is in blogs isn’t Journalism, rather much of it is opinions, and we, as readers, need to understand the difference.
What is a blog-
A blog is a web based log, dairy, or journal.
Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can start a blog. Most blogs are personal musings, observations, hobbies and some are directly related to owner’s profession. There are several companies that maintain blogs that discuss a varied number of topics relating to their business and sometimes not so much. The blog can be about anything the owner’s wishes to share with the world.
There is little doubt that KELOLAND’s Kevin Woster is a great journalist, who often blogged about his transformation from hard-core newspaper man to television reporter. I enjoy reading his blog postings, and seeing how they manifest themselves through his news stories. To be honest, I always look forward to Kevin’s stories, not so much for the stories, rather to witness his renovation. He still seems a bit wooden on air; however, you can defiantly see the black and white, newsprint journalist shine through.
If you have enough passion for a topic, starting a blog is easy enough. It took my 16 year old daughter about five minutes and her blog was up and running on tumbler.
There are many different software packages to choose from. Each one has its own unique features and shortcomings.
- Word press-most popular
- Google blogger-linked to your Google account
- Go Daddy – your own domain and your own site for a price
- Many other web based formats, both at no-cost and paid.
- If you feel bold enough you can build your own ( not for the technically challenged)
- Many others
However this isn’t so much about how to start a blog.
The First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Which means a writer, journalist, publisher or blogger can write about whatever their heart desires. However, like The Freedom of Speech there are limits what can be printed or posted. We’ll get into that a bit later.
Journalist A. J. Liebling stated, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” And the Supreme Court stating ‘the press’ means all forms of media; this freedom of the press applies to anyone who owns a blog.
Journalism has always been a craft – in rare moments- an art – but never a profession. It depends too much on the perception, skill, empathy and honesty of the practitioner rather than on the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills.
Journalism is the craft of gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information.
Please make no mistake; I have the up-most respect for professional journalists. It takes a special skill to write or produce stories that are compelling. Like furniture maker can take a pile of lumber and create a functional, comfortable and beautiful chair; Journalists can take some disconnected ideas, quotes, and some data and wordsmith them into a captivating and informative story. Like no two furniture makers will create the exact same chair, No two journalists will create the same story.
Most of today’s journalists have attended some kind of school and have some piece of paper hanging on their ‘I love me’ wall. Some of the courses they took were the standard core classes like history, foreign languages, mathematics, etc. They also take other classes that are specific to journalism like writing, speech, video editing, ethics, and legal matters (how to stay out of the courtroom) It is here journalists learn the skills of their craft.
However, you don’t need ‘Wall Paper’ to be a journalist.
The Citizen-Journalist is a hybrid of a blogger, who has a passion of their chosen topic and a journalist who has the skills to produce stories. There have been a few ventures that have tried to capitalize the idea of citizen-journalism. They provided some basic journalistic training (journalist boot camp?) some kind of access to submit stories and off they go. The level of training, professional and ‘back office’ support varies from company to company, generally based on the financial backing. Most of them have failed; however there are some important lessons to be learned from the ventures.
Examiner.com is one of the more successful and still functioning sites. They give writer a page, like a blog, access to some national resources (like The AP feed), some on-line training and on-line access to an editor. Writers earn money by having people accessing the page. Not enough to earn a living, maybe enough for a nice dinner.
The Chi-Town Daily News had an interesting idea. They partnered with a local school that provided basic classes at no charge (additional, advanced classes were available for a fee). Once the first story was published, the writer was presented with a shiny new ‘PRESS’ identification card, and a lanyard then placed in a database. This database had thousands of names, their location, and their interests. Once a news story broke, the people in the ‘newsroom’ consulted their data base and made a call to a citizen-journalist who in most cases where just blocks away. The Citizen-Journalist gets the details and posted a story within short time. The non-profit Chi-Town Daily News folded in 2011 and is now working a new for profit model.
There have been several such ideas that have been tried locally, each one with some level of success. Joe Prostrollo’s MySiouxFalls.com tried a similar approach, and it failed in less than a year. KELOLAND.com used to have a area for local bloggers, they have since abandoned the in favor of their two in house bloggers. KELOLAND.com now has uShare they don’t offer any journalist tools or training they do allow users to share videos, pictures, and news tips. KELO-TV often uses some of these on air during their news casts, giving credit where due.
For a while it seems the courts have been sending out mixed rulings.
Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox –
Investigative blogger Crystal Cox was accused of posting several accusations about The Obsidian Finance Group of corrupt and fraudulent conduct across several blogs, and then offered to remove the posts, for a fee. When Obsidian Finance Group sued, Ms. Cox claimed she was a Investigative-blogger and was protected by Oregon’s media shield laws. U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez disagreed. Judge Hernandez wrote in his opinion :
Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.”
It is on page nine of his ruling.
Ouch! That was a real zinger.
A couple of years ago, in the Lederman, Willaard, Nelson and Dykstra robo call diabolical, our very own Pat Powers was asked (subpoenaed) to testify. Judge Vince Foley ruled:
I am of the opinion that… bloggers in their vein are journalists in the modern sense of the word,
Judge Foley didn’t excuse Mr. Powers, rather he would review Mr. Powers testimony in private to determine if the jury should hear it.
That is an almost win, I think.
And just last year in the appeal of Obsidian Finance Group V. Cox The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled:
The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable: “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media . . . the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”
You’ll find it on page eleven here.
Simply put everyone, not just journalists, has First Amendment protections.
After Judge Foley issued his ruling that Mr. Powers did not have to testify in open court the South Dakota blogosphere examined the issue a bit closer.
I reached out to my professional journalist friends, who have asked not to be named. The general consensus was unless they have some kind of ‘wall paper’ or is drawing a paycheck to write, they are not journalists. In the past year or so their stance seems to have softened some. I don’t expect bloggers to be invited to any awards dinner anytime soon; it is still nice for some recognition from the profession’s rank and file.
Todd Epp briefly explored the topic at the Northern Plains News after Judge Foley ruled that bloggers were journalists.Of point of interest seems to be the last two paragraphs :
(Tim)Gebhart says that while a journalist may be a blogger not all bloggers are journalists.
“Gathering news and disseminating it to the public is the key for me,” Gebhart said. “If bloggers are doing that, then their information regarding confidential sources is worthy of protection. If they’re simply expressing personal opinion or navel gazing, it’s entirely different.”
For (Dr. Michael) Marek, it’s how the blogger or citizen approaches their writing and reporting.
“In my opinion, a journalist is not defined by the channel of communication used, but rather is someone who uses the principles of journalism, such as quoting sources and quoting them accurately, not plagiarizing and similar fundamental practices,” Marek said.
It might be worthwhile to take a peek at some of the journalistic ethics. Journalists haven’t always had a code of ethics to work with. Back a little better than a century ago, some journalists were, well, a bit slimy, they only used ethics when it was ‘convenient.’ In the 1950’s/60’s Several journalist schools popped up. Part of the education was a basic code of ethics. This code of ethics was to address problems within the journalism industry at the time. Most news organizations, professional journalists and publishers have adopted some kind of code of ethics. They vary in the specifics, however they have several common elements.
Seek the truth and report it.
- Gather, update and correct information (get it right)
- Attempt to get all sides of the story
- Identify Sources clearly
- Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
- Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.
- Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles,
- victims of sex crimes, and
- sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.
- Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information. (lesson hard learned)
- Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
Be accountable and transparent
- Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
I got this partial list from the Society of Professional Journalists. Each news room has their own standard. It is really unfair to apply all of these standards to blogs. When someone opens the South Dakota War College blog, they know, going in, the postings are going to have a pro-Republican slant, with the occasional drift into jukeboxes. The same applies with someone brings up The Madville Times they understand the news is going to be slanted toward a more liberal bias. That is perfectly fine, so long as the reader understand the point of view of the blog. Like a newsroom can choose what stories to run, blogs can choose what to publish; with the exception of libel (slander is spoken). Regardless of how much someone may want something to be true, information that is known to be false, wrong or defamatory cannot be published as a fact. Doing so will find the author/publisher at the defendant’s table in a courtroom. Often times, the difference between an opinion and libel are just one or two words.
Journalist privilege or media shield law-
We have already established that bloggers are indeed journalists in the eyes of the court. Other than the First Amendment, South Dakota doesn’t have a specific media shield law. We really don’t need them. Other states have extensive shield laws. The privilege to not reveal sources is a very powerful and dangerous tool. Anonymity is generally reserved for sources that may face danger, retribution or other harm, and the information cannot be obtained elsewhere. Using it too often weakens credibility.
Journalist access or how to get to the good stuff-
Honestly, it is not all ‘good stuff’; let’s call it a lot of stuff, with some good nuggets in it. Getting to it takes a lot leg (keyboard/mouse) work. That means visiting web sites and getting signed up for press releases, making phone calls, E-mail, etc. The Associated Press is a great, magical resource, but like all magic, it comes with a price.
Has anyone ever noticed how when a news story runs across networks they all seem to be the same, almost word for word? It is because they all got the same presser (press release) with the story already written, news rooms run the story as is. It fact the people putting out the press release are hoping the news outlets will run the press release as is written, word for word.
Among the press releases there are also press advisories. Press advisories are a ‘heads up’ something is going to happen at this place at this time and they would like members of the media to attend. Most likely a press conference or some other made for the media event.
If there is an event that a blogger really wants to cover, however they need credentials, where do journalists (and bloggers) get them? Some bloggers have taken to create their own ‘company press credentials,’ that and a little moxy they can get into many places normally reserved for traditional journalists. Some folks have taken a business card and put it in a clear plastic ID card holder and called that their press pass.
Most major events have a Media Relations person or similarly named position. They have a form to fill out, either on paper or online. Sometimes they require a letter from the assignment or supervising editor on a company letter head. Occasionally they’ll ask for a small fee to cover the cost of the badge itself. The credentials are picked up at the media or press office, they might be some rules about what can be photographed, where reporters can and can’t go, etc. These rules should be laid out when the credentials are picked up. Sometimes the event organizers will even provide a small work space for journalists. Normally, a call the event organizers get the ball rolling.
One blogger managed to make their way into the White House press briefings. In 2005, Garrett M. Graff, of the Washington DC blog FishbowlDC was granted a daily pass to the White House press briefing. He got a little help from USA Today and CNN, after he chronicled his attempts on the blog. That was the exception, generally bloggers don’t get into the White House daily or any press briefings.
The Senate and US House of Representatives press galleries are under the control of the Standing Committee of Correspondents. They have some pretty set rules:
An applicant for press credentials through the Daily Press Galleries must establish to the satisfaction of the Standing Committee of Correspondents that he or she is a full-time, paid correspondent who requires on-site access to congressional members and staff. Correspondents must be employed by a news organization:
(a) with General Publication periodicals mailing privileges under U.S. Postal Service rules, and which publishes daily; or
(b) whose principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public, and which has published continuously for 18 months.
The applicant must reside in the Washington, D.C. area, and must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. Government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries.
Applicants’ publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government or that is not principally a general news organization. Failure to provide information to the Standing Committee for this determination, or misrepresenting information, can result in the denial or revocation of credentials.
The Supreme Court of the United States has stated the press credentialing process is currently under review. Normally they will grant credentials to someone who holds press credentials from either house of congress or the White House.
The award winning SCOTUSblog has been denied press credentials for the Daily Senate Press Gallery and to the Supreme Court of the United States. The SCOTUSblog is the ‘go to’ place for all things related to the Supreme Court. The Peabody Awards calls the SCOTUSblog
“In many respects, SCOTUSblog is to the Supreme Court of the United States what ESPN.com is to the world of sports.”
This story is ongoing as noted from TheHill.com
However, A blogger or journalist really doesn’t need credentials to the press galleries or the White House. I have been able to ask questions of Senator John Thune, former Senator Tim Johnson and Congresswoman Kristi Noem by E-mail and have gotten a response back within 24 hour either by E-mail or a phone call from their staff. I have been invited to listen in on press conference calls with Senator Thune and Congresswoman Noem. Both have been most accommodating for bloggers. Questions to the White House are normally answered within a week, either by E-mail or a letter via snail mail.
At the State level, Our Governor has most accommodating for the press, even holding the microphones at a press conference at the Madison airport. His staff answers every question sent by e-mail. Every legislator, regardless if they have a ‘R’ or ‘D’ after their name, have answered every E-mail within about 12 hours. Minnehaha County takes a bit longer, however, they are more than willing chat with me. I feel that I can approach any of the commissioners at almost any time ask them any question, within reason. Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead has been very gracious to bloggers and the press in general. All it takes is just a little effort.
Bloggers have been busy making inroads into traditional journalist preserves. Bloggers are now welcomed at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. and other press clubs in the United States, Not quite as full members, yet, however I can get access some of their resources. That might kind of handy if my assignment editor ever assigns me to Washington D.C.
Bloggers, in spite of all their shortcomings, are very much journalists.
Now, you can break out in your happy dance.
Journalists, I know some of you read this blog, your audience will remain silent no more. With access to the internet and technology people are finding their voice and they have something to say. They have the passion for their subject of choice, and the drive to dig to get the entire story. What they don’t have is the expertise to put their ideas into words or the skills to ensure it is done right. Reach out to them and help them; help them focus their passions. Bloggers are your brethren. Your profession has had it good times and some pretty rough times. When news print was king and the new medium of radio and television news found their place, the way news was reported changed, and now bloggers with their tablets and instant access are coming on the scene, the industry is going to go through another similar transformation. You can either guide them or push against them, either way they are coming.
Bloggers, You have something to say, and there are people who are willing to listen. I admire your passion and applaud your drive. What you lack is experience and skill. Seasoned Journalists have that. Seek them out, listen to them and learn from them. The traditional journalists have been where bloggers are going. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to take the reporting and the writing seriously. It also helps to show a little respect. If a journalist is not willing to help you, there are plenty of free (no cost) journalism training available on the net. Learn as much as you can. We all know there will be a few journalism purists who will try to deny or push back coming of the bloggers. Don’t let that stop you.
A Special Note for Facebook users:
I like facebook, really I do. I have used it to connect with old classmates, friends and even found a few new friends. I strongly urge that writers protect their facebook lives . While there is nothing wrong with promoting your blog on your personal facebook page once in a while, and finding leads for stories on facebook, you should strive to keep the your personal facebook life separate from your journalism life. You really don’t want to drag your mom into a heated discussion about the candidates for your local school board.
A truly free and independent press is a vital component of any healthy democratic society. The prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.
-Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill