My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Who should enjoy journalistic privilege?

The question of who should enjoy journalistic privilege - the legal right to protect sources - these days is not an easy one to answer given that it's no longer simple to define who is and who is not a journalist.

A related question is who should be given access to cover court proceedings and political conferences given that only so many journalists can be accommodated in a courtroom or catered for at a news or political conference.

Clay Shirky provides some food for thought on privilege and the definition of a journalist in Here Comes Everybody, which I'm finally getting round to reading.

Shirky notes the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a journalist is "a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television".

In other words, a journalist is defined by who they work for - the publisher - rather than by the work they do.

That worked fine when publishing was such an expensive business that only a few could afford to invest in the vast plant required to broadcast television programmes or print newspapers.

Journalistic privilege applied only to a relatively small number of journalists, which made it achievable for the legal system to "uncover and prosecute wrongdoing while allowing a safety valve for investigative reporting".

But now that we have the internet, anyone with access to a computer or a mobile phone and an internet connection can be a publisher.

"If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist," says Shirky. "And if anyone can be a journalist, then journalistic privilege suddenly becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society.

"Imagine, in a world where any blogger could claim protection, trying to compel someone to testify about their friend's shady business: 'Oh, I can't testify about that. I've been blogging about it, so what he told me is confidential.'

"We can't just exclude bloggers either. Many well-read bloggers are journalists, like the war reporter Kevin Sites, who was fired from CNN for blogging then went to blog on his own; or Rebecca Mackinnon, who was formerly at CNN and went on to cofound Global Voices, dedicated to spreading blogging throughout the world; or Dan Gillmore, a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News who blogged both during and after his tenure; and so on.

"It's tempting to grandfather these bloggers as journalists, since they were journalists before they were blogging, but that would essentially be to ignore the weblog as a form, since a journalist would have to be anointed by some older form of media.

"This idea preserves what is most wrong with the original definition, namely that the definition of journalist is not internally consistent but rather is tied to ownership of communications machinery.

"It would exclude Ethan Zuckerman, a cofounder of Global Voices with Mackinnon; it's hard to imagine any sensible definition of journalist that would include her and exclude him, but it's also hard to imagine any definition that includes him without opening the door to including tens of millions of bloggers, too large a group to be acceptable.

"It would include Xeni Jardin, one of the contributors to the well-trafficked weblog Boing Boing who, as a result of her blogging, has gotten a spot on NPR. Did she become a journalist after NPR anointed her? Did her blogging for Boing Boing become journalism afterward? What about the posts from before - did they retroactively become the work of a journalist?

"The simple answer is that there is no simple answer.

"Now that scarcity is gone... Facing the new abundance of publishing options, we could just keep adding to the list of possible outlets to which journalism is tied - newspapers and television, and now blogging and video blogging and podcasting and so on. But the latter items on the list are different because they have no built-in scarcity. Anyone can be a publisher."

And so it goes on.

Any thoughts?

blog comments powered by Disqus