Is a blogger a journalist? Not in Oregon | Bleader

Is a blogger a journalist? Not in Oregon

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Crystal Cox
  • Crystal Cox.com
A federal judge in Oregon has ruled that a blogger sued by an investment firm for defamation is not protected by that state's media shield law, and he ordered her to pay the firm $2.5 million. Here's the post in which blogger Crystal Cox, identifying herself as an "investigative blogger" and "investigative journalist," calls Kevin Padrick of Obsidian Finance Group LLC a "liar and thief."

Here, from the Seattle Weekly's Curtis Cartier, is a discussion of Padrick's suit. It explains that Cox claims her post was based on an inside source that Oregon's shield law protects her right not to name. And it tells us why Judge Marco Hernandez did not agree.

On first reading, the Oregon shield law seems open and shut:

No person connected with, employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public shall be required by ... a judicial officer ... to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise ... [t]he source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public.

But Hernandez concluded the shield law didn't apply because "the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system."

So what?

A second piece by Cartier answers this question. He tells us that Oregon law defines "any medium of communication" as "any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system." It's a long list, but blogs aren't on it.

Washington's shield law would have done better by Cox, Cartier observes. It declares that "no judicial, legislative, administrative, or other body with the power to issue a subpoena or other compulsory process may compel the news media to testify, produce, or otherwise disclose the identity of a source of any news or information or any information that would tend to identify the source where such source has a reasonable expectation of confidentiality."

And it defines "news media" to include "any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book publisher, news agency, wire service, radio or television station or network, cable or satellite station or network, or audio or audiovisual production company, or any entity that is in the regular business of news gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means, including, but not limited to, print, broadcast, photographic, mechanical, internet, or electronic distribution."

But that doesn't mean Padrick would have lost his suit in Washington. As Cartier points out, Cox's big problem wasn't that she claimed she got her story from an inside source and wouldn't say who it was. Her problem was that she couldn't prove her story was true. Naming the source wouldn't necessarily make the story any more credible. Cox has been acting as her own lawyer, and Cartier advised her to get one.

So what about the Illinois law?

Measured against Washington's, or even Oregon's, it isn't very impressive. It says, "No court may compel any person to disclose the source of any information obtained by a reporter except..." And the qualifying conditions that follow include the relevancy of the information, the likelihood of obtaining it some other way, and the public interest at stake in learning the source as against the public interest in protecting the journalist.

The shield law goes on to define reporter: "any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained."

And news medium: "any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation; a news service whether in print or electronic format; a radio station; a television station; a television network; a community antenna television service; and any person or corporation engaged in the making of news reels or other motion picture news for public showing."

And even source: "the person or means from or through which the news or information was obtained."

There's nothing much in that shield law to give independent bloggers any comfort. But the bigger reason it won't do remains what it was when I wrote about it in July:

The Illinois Reporter's Act is one of the many well-meant laws written by legislatures around the country to shield reporters from snoops with subpoena power. . . . As any law must that singles out a class for benefits, it tries to define the class. A reporter, says the act, "means any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained." As recently as the turn of the century that definition might have sufficed, though it deftly begs the question of what is news? The news, whatever that was, was something dispensed by an identifiable priesthood. If journalists didn't bring you the Word you didn't get it.

But journalism is well into its reformation. These days everyone's a priest. God's lips are to everyone's ears.

When the law has to resort to writing lists, the law's in trouble. The law should speak to us in first principles, and the newest first principle of journalism is that anyone can be a reporter for the next 15 minutes.

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