Bloggers: Welcome to the downside of journalism!

January 17, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

A few days ago, I was at the Memphis Convention Center waiting for Dennis Kucinich to enter a large room to begin his press conference.  The reporter sitting in front of me noticed that I was wearing credentials bearing the word “press,” credentials granted by the National Conference for Media Reform.

She asked me about “Dangerous Intersection.”  I told her that it is a blog created in March 2006.  I mentioned that we have a dozen participating authors and that we get about 1100 unique visitors each day. 

She asked, “Would you have ever believed back in March that you would be sitting here covering a press conference of a person running for President of the United States?”   It didn’t cross my mind back then. This blogging experience has taken lots of unexpected twists and turns.  I jokingly told her that she was making me nervous by making the press conference seem more important–and reminding me that I am merely a citizen journalist.  

                        evv - credentialed.jpg
(Here I am in Memphis, Citizen Journalist.  The bottom of my badge reads “Press.”)

One of the main points stressed throughout the Media Reform Conference, however, was that journalism is changing rapidly.  Corporate media is struggling (often because its corporate owners are muzzling its reporters) and citizen journalists are stepping into the void.  Though the citizen journalists range in quality, they do include many highly qualified reporters who are having lots of fun contributing to the public discourse.  Prior to this movement, most of these people were largely shut out.  They were at the mercy of the editors of newspaper op-ed sections, who quickly chopped out anything that deeply challanged the status quo. It was, for me, extremely frustrating permission-based access. 

But now the bloggers have the means to publish on their own, as well better access to the stories. For example, check out this recent headline from the Washington Post. 

Too Casual To Sit on Press Row? Bloggers’ Credentials Boosted With Seats at the Libby Trial

The bottom line is that bloggers will be among those attending and reporting the trial “Scotter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff.  Here’s an excerpt, also from the Washington Post:

[T]he Media Bloggers Association, a nonpartisan group with about 1,000 members working to extend the powers of the press to bloggers, has won credentials to rotate among his members. The trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the highest-ranking Bush administration official to face criminal charges, could “catalyze” the association’s efforts to win respect and access for bloggers in federal and state courthouses, said Robert Cox, the association’s president.

The new validation doesn’t necessarily clarify the blurry line between bloggers and traditional journalists at a time when millions of people are discovering that they can project their opinions and expertise around the world with just a few keystrokes. The debates over the traditional checks-and-balances process that journalists follow are continuing, and some bloggers are resisting efforts to be put under the umbrella of the traditional news media.

“The Internet today is like the American West in the 1880s. It’s wild, it’s crazy and everybody’s got a gun,” said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school. “There are no rules yet.”

Media Bloggers Association, apparently tired of having its members dissed, presented a different spin on the event:

The army of journalists covering the Lewis “Scooter” Libby trial showed up for work today. The E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse is still standing. The sun will set in the west. All this despite bloggers showing up today for the first time as credentialed members of the media covering a federal trial.

With all that fun comes a downside, however.  First of all, simply wearing “press” credentials doesn’t make one a competent reporter.  Good reporters don’t just happen.  For instance, good professions are guided by principles. Most bloggers haven’t consciously thought this through. They should.  Media Bloggers Association has thought this through, developing its own Mission Statement and Statement of Principles. 

MBA Mission
The Media Bloggers Association is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting, protecting and educating its members; supporting the development of “blogging” or “citizen journalism” as a distinct form of media; and helping to extend the power of the press, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, to every citizen.

The Media Bloggers Association mission statement also includes the following:

* Promoting its members by advancing the grassroots media movement generally, showcasing exemplary instances of media blogging and citizen journalism, making members available for media appearances and otherwise creating promotional opportunities for the MBA and its members.
* Protecting members by defending the rights of bloggers and citizen journalists generally, providing first-line legal advice to members, and partnering with organization dedicated to promoting values enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
* Educating its members through mutual support and robust internal discussion, by partnering with organizations dedicated to education in the area of technology, methods and standards and otherwise creating educational opportunities for the MBA and its members.

The MBA Principles include this one:

Blogging is not only a publishing medium but also a vibrant form of personal expression. Media Bloggers Association members slip in and out of roles as journalists, reviewers, poets, pundits or provocateurs with each post. When our members practice journalism, they have the same rights and responsibilities as any other journalist and must be accorded the same First Amendment rights and legal privileges as those who work for traditional media organizations. We accept the Wikipedia definition of journalism as “a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people.”

Interestingly, aonther one of the principles applies to those who blog anonymously:  “As a general rule, the MBA does not accept anonymous bloggers as members . . .”  The MBA does make exceptions to this general rule, as I believe they should [this sounds like a good topic for a later post].

As Peter Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  The power of blogging, I believe, comes with the responsibility of giving thought to what one is trying to accomplish, in a disciplined way.  A set of written principles, like those presented by the MBA, is a good way to guide bloggers, in my opinion.

Here’s another concern for all of us who practice journalism on the new frontier: what if the government subpoenas us?  Career reporters usually have organizations to back them up and provide legal advice.  Most bloggers would have no better resources than Josh Wolf.

The First Amendment Center presents an especially thoughtful discussion of whether bloggers should be given special First Amendment (“shield law”) protections.  As presented in that article, some have suggested that bloggers are actually “writers,” and they should be judged based on what they write rather than how:

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that asking whether bloggers are journalists is the wrong question. “‘Bloggers’ is a vague, amorphous term like ‘telephone users,’” he says. “Just like some telephone users are journalists and some are not; the same thing with bloggers. The medium doesn’t answer the question. It has more to do with the function that the person is performing. That’s how we have approached the shield law question. If the bloggers’ involvement is to report information to the public and to gather information for that purpose openly then they should be treated like a journalist.”

“There should be a functional analysis in addition to or instead of the current analysis of what medium you are writing in,” Leslie said.

American Society of Newspaper Editors, in discussing the Free Flow of Information Act of 2005 (a national shield law that would protect reporters who refuse to reveal the sources of information in federal court proceedings) held that people covered under the Act should not include bloggers:

This definition is not meant to extend broadly to protect any individual operating a personal website or web log (“blog”) because of the potential overbreadth of restricting disclosure of information from the millions of Americans using the Internet to communicate personal ideas and information.

On the other hand, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “has endorsed a proposed federal shield law that would keep journalists from being forced to disclose confidential information in legal proceedings, has said that the shield should cover anyone involved in news-gathering activities, including bloggers.”

Defamation suits present yet another hazard to bloggers. The Washington Post quotes the Media Law Resource Center, in reporting that 

69 lawsuits have been brought against bloggers nationwide, including a $1 million suit filed last year against Maine blogger Lance Dutson, who accused his state’s tourism department of wasting taxpayer money in a promotional campaign. The advertising agency that developed it sued for libel, defamation and copyright infringement but ended up dropping the suit after advocates rallied to Dutson’s defense.

Most cases against bloggers have not made it to trial. Cox, in an effort to head off suits, recently launched an initiative to raise the standards of his members through online education, holding out the prospect that they could then qualify for blogging liability insurance offered through the association.

That worrisome news sent me to the Media Bloggers Association insurance site. The topic of insurance is something that had occurred to me several times this year, but I haven’t seriously considered it to this point because almost all of our writing at this site concerns public figures. 
But get this.  According to the Media Bloggers Association, the insurers are busy cutting their losses already, planning rewrites of homeowner insurance policies to save money while excluding them from the homeowner policies they already own, and then (for the coup de grace), forcing them to shell out additional amount for special blogging coverage. 

Although most will scoff, the most significant development in blogging over the past several months has been the interest of some liability insurance companies to develop affordable publisher liability insurance for bloggers.

Last month I was invited to speak at the Professional Liability Underwriters Society conference in Chicago. There I met with insurance company executives interested in developing a liability product for bloggers. Once there I learned that there primary reason for holding a session on blogging was not about advancing citizen journalism but covering their assets, so to speak. Industry lawyers explained to the assembled insurance executives that many homeowner policy holders were now blogging and that insurance companies now had new risk exposure (some homeowners policies include some liability coverage which might apply to blog-related litigation). Their recommendation was to rewrite policies to explicitly exclude losses related to blogging.

Some might be surprised that bloggers would consider insurance. Consider this, though.  Anyone can sue you for defamation.  It’s not a prerequisite that a claim be meritorious to file that suit.  Even if you eventually prove a claim to be without merit at trial, that will be many dozens of $150 – 300/hour defense attorney fees later.  And that’s if you win.

So there you have it.  To the extent you want the fun of being a citizen journalist, you’ll need to take on the risk and responsibility of career journalists.  Perhaps, someday, help will be on the way.  In the meantime, all you bloggers need to watch your back out on the Internet Frontier. 

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Category: Civil Rights, Communication, Law, Media, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Scholar says:

    I often get my news from netscape.com. The way they do news is by counting the number of votes netscape users give to stories submitted by other netscape users. The result is a conglomeration of "newsworthy" stories like the "surge" in Iraq and far-fetched reports about 2-headed babies and marijuana cure-alls. Also, netscape.com is where Erich's infamous "who changed the bible and why" post caught my eye (and apparently quite a few netscape users too). While other news portals like Google seem to have more consistency and accuracy in its stories, netscape offers the personal touch of what "average" internet users think is important. You can even see how other people respond to the stories, and then see what other stories they commented on. I bet most of you guys haven't read the netscape thread about Bart Ehrman's book which also links here at DI.

    http://religion.netscape.com/story/2006/10/22/who

    (I especially disdain Froggy's comments)

  2. hogiemo says:

    Erich, little did we know that we are full-time pioneers on the frontiers of journalism. Cool!

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Thanks, Scholar. Now I have access to 526 MORE comments on the Bart Ehrman Post at Netscape! This includes many posts by people who cite the Bible to prove the Bible's truth. And then there are 51 more comments out at Reddit.com, mostly thoughtful.

    Your point is well taken about the types of articles that make it to the top. The masses want scandal, sex, intrique and the bizarre. Carefully written thoughtful articles don't usually shoot to the top of those sites.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Hogie: Perhaps I (unwittingly) stole your self-description (see the About Page): A “concerned citizen and full-time pioneer on the frontier of justice in America.”

  5. Boelf says:

    Your post implies that bloggers by refusing the label "journalist" will somehow be protected from legal issues falling out from public commentary.

    Since that is unlikely to be the case might as well have the protections (such as they are) afforded journalists.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Boelf: I didn't mean to suggest that bloggers are protected from anything by refusing the title "journalist." Bloggers are at least as vulnerable to the dangers I describe as are journalists. It's likely that bloggers are actually more vulnerable than career journalists, since bloggers usually don't have the legal and financial resources that journalists have to defend themselves.

  7. Scholar says:

    Just found an article published in today's Blogcritics magazine that examines the new Netscape approach to internet journalism…

    http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/01/16/142820

    and here is the main Blogcritics page, it looks promising…
    http://blogcritics.org/

  8. Ebonmuse says:

    There used to be a time in America when every citizen could have their say in the public discourse, thanks to the printing press and the pamphlets and letters it churned out. Tom Paine himself got his word out this way. After a too-long era of consolidated, corporate media, I think citizen journalism is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the Internet. If anything, it's better and more vibrant than it was before, and it can't happen fast enough for me.

    It's truly a wonderful thing, the diversity of viewpoints that blogging has brought about. Everyone can now seek out and read for themselves a huge range of opinions and perspectives on every imaginable issue, and voices that we never would have heard before now have a chance to emerge.

  9. Gene Borio says:

    >>The E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse is still standing. The sun will set in the west. All this despite bloggers showing up today for the first time as credentialed members of the media covering a federal trial.

    This is inaccurate. I had a blogging seat in the Press Room of that very courthouse, the Prettyman, in Sept., 2004, as a credentialed online journalist. The result: I blogged the 9-month trial of USA v. Philip Morris, et. al. (http://www.tobacco-on-trial.com). I was referenced in this capacity in the New York Times on Oct. 28, 2004.

    Similarly, I was credentialed to attend and report on the US Supreme Court session which heard the Williams v. Philip Morris arguments on Oct. 31, 2006.

    Also similarly, I was granted access to the Press Rooms of the Rosen trial (NY Supreme Court, Mineola, LI, 2005) and the Schwab trial (US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, NY 2006).

    I have always been treated with grace and respect by every courtroom officer I have dealt with, and have usually received my credentials within days, sometimes minutes. Not years.

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