Ramona's picture

    Just because I call myself a Journo doesn't mean I are one


    This morning blogger John Aravosis, over at AMERICAblog, wrote about blogging vs. journalism after finding an article from AP about a ruling against a Montana blogger who claimed protections as a journalist while fighting a defamation suit brought by a lawyer she called "a thug and a thief".

    According to the AP article, a federal judge ruled that Crystal Cox ( from her website:  Investigative Blogger, Reputation Manager, Real Estate Broker Owner, Good Life International )  "was not a journalist and cannot claim the protections afforded to mainstream reporters and news outlets."

    From AP: 

    "The judge ruled that Cox was not protected by Oregon's shield law from having to produce sources, saying even though Cox defines herself as media, she was not affiliated with any mainstream outlet. He added that the shield law does not apply to civil actions for defamation.
    Hernandez said Cox was not a journalist because she offered no professional qualifications as a journalist or legitimate news outlet. She had no journalism education, credentials or affiliation with a recognized news outlet, proof of adhering to journalistic standards such as editing or checking her facts, evidence she produced an independent product or evidence she ever tried to get both sides of the story.
    Cox said she considered herself a journalist, producing more than 400 blogs over the past five years, with a proprietary technique to get her postings on the top of search engines where they get the most notice.
    'What could be more mainstream than the Internet and the top of the search engine?' she said."
    I predict that before this is over, every blogger who writes about politicians and public people will weigh in on this one. (At BlogHer, blogger LisaWasHere fills in some of the blanks, including the settlement: a whopping 2.5 million dollars!)   So here's my take, for what it's worth.
    Some bloggers are journalists.  Some journalists are bloggers.  If a blogger wants to call herself a journalist, it's a free country and the blogosphere is about as free-wheeling as it gets.  But if you go so far as to call a public figure a thug and a thief, remember your journalistic standards:  You had better have some proof to back that up.
    When I was writing columns and features for newspapers and articles for magazines, I had to submit bios.  If, in any of my clever little biographies, I called myself a journalist, you can chalk it up to my being new and full of myself and foolish enough to think that just using the word made me one.  (I would say I never did, but knowing that early me, there's probably at least one silly bio out there just waiting to prove me a liar.)
    There are dozens of sources for journalism ethics, if any "investigative blogger" wants to make use of them.  The Society of Professional Journalists makes theirs public, and it's a pretty good one.  There are others out there for the taking, and they're not hard to find.  It's not about popularity, it's about digging out and telling a compelling truth.
    I don't know what's going to happen to Crystal Cox now, and I really don't doubt that she has done some good work as a conscientious blogger, but I have to question whether high rankings in search engines actually adds to her creds as a journalist.  I mean, really.  That nutty assertion may have just lost the case for her.
    Going by that line of logic, one might consider Andy Borowitz and websites like The Onion prime examples of true journalistic wonderfulness.  They both try to shine light on rotten politicians and public figures, they're good at it, and their rankings on Google are right up there.  (By the way, Crystal Cox's page rank is 2 points below mine at Ramona's Voices.  So much for that argument.)
    (I loved this book. I don't have it anymore.  I'm going to ask for it for Christmas)
    But the point of all this is that we bloggers do need to take stock of who we are and what we're doing.  Blogging is a brand new source of communication, and if the standards aren't yet written in a rule book somewhere, we have to go by our own gut feelings about ethics and responsibility.  We owe something to our readers, as few as they might be.  We are opinionists and muckrakers but we aren't necessarily journalists.  The differences might be vague at the moment, but all it takes is one judge slapping a 2.5 million dollar fine on one of us to get our attention. 
    So can we talk about this?  It looks like it's that time.
    (Cross-posted at Ramona's Voices)


    I think the real question isn't, "Who's a journalist?", but "Who should be protected by Oregon's shield law?" What's the purpose of the law? In my mind, when I look at it like that, I think that Crystal Cox should be protected.

    I agree.  Especially since the judge threw out defamation as a possibility in so many of the other posts.  She had clearly taken an investigative interest in this story and her claim to have a off the record source is not implausible.

    If I, out of nowhere, started writing defamatory stuff about you and then told a judge it was because a close friend of yours was my off the record source, that would be implausible.  But she worked on this for years.  It's hard to believe that she doesn't have some inside sources.

    As I point out out below, the Oregon shield law doesn't apply to defamation cases. The judge didn't need to address the issue of whether Cox is a journalist, and erred in doing so. Personally, I dislike laws that make exceptions on the basis of job status. Shield laws should pivot on whether the reporter/blogger adheres to sound journalistic practice. If you present something as fact, back it up. Don't just tell your reader that someone is "a thug and a thief," demonstrate it.

    I don't know enough about defamation to argue the specifics of it, but I'm in agreement that it doesn't seem to matter whether Cox is a journalist.

    No, in this case it probably doesn't matter whether or nor Cox has journo creds.  But here she is, a blogger, in more trouble than most of us can imagine.  She apparently thought calling herself a journalist would give her certain protections, which led her to make leaps to accusations she couldn't substantiate.  (And probably undid all the good she worked so hard to accomplish.)

    She may have been going after these people for years, which is no doubt commendable, but she needs to understand that if you're going to call yourself a journalist you have to behave like a journalist, and that means you choose your words carefully and cover your bases.

    I'm shocked by the amount of the settlement, and it's safe to say it'll be appealed.  (He must be some big cheese to have been defamed to the tune of a couple of million bucks.)  But all the more reason for all of us, even lowly bloggers, to watch what we say.  We're no longer safe in our little blogo havens.  It's all out there.


    Check the e-mail she sent them after 2 years of attacking posts and web search spoofing.

    Is web page spoofing to drive hits away from their internet presence "journalism"? How about asking for a PR and Search Engine Services job for $2500/month to stop her own attacks on them?

    Looking at what she was doing (and what Forbes has on this) I'm not convinced she should be defended as a Journalist.

    She didn't explicitly demand money, so extortion might be tough to prove; but it looks extortion-like to me. Should that be covered by shield laws?

    Rupert Murdoch would consider that journalism! devil

    But no, in all seriousness, I've rethought my position on this. I still stand by my principle that bloggers are no less entitled to protections given to traditional journalists. However, no traditional journalist should be able to get away with that behavior either.

    From the Forbes article:

    Yes, there are bloggers who are journalists. But just because you have a blog doesn’t mean that what you do is journalism.

    I'd extend that to say, and just because you write for a newspaper, that doesn't mean what you do is journalism, either.

    For those who are interested, the Forbes article also sheds light on the size of the award.

    Wow!  Yikes!  That is just nutty!  (Did I say Wow?)  Is this the clueless work of a nutcase or a really, really clumsy attempt at extortion?

    I thought focusing on the distinction between blogger and journalist might be interesting, but it can't hold a candle to the back story.  This whole unfolding saga is just fascinating!

    Thanks so much for the Forbes link.  I don't know how I missed it.  Wow!

    One of the things I'm trying to do, these days when I write more commentary than reportage, is to get out of the motivations business.  It's not entirely possible, of course, but I try to stay within broad realms.  "Merkel wants to protect Germany's banks from the effects of sovereign defaults," seems fair to me, and I can source it.  But if not, I'd say something more like, "The probably effect of Merkel's policies will be to protect German banks from the effects of sovereign defaults."

    This is kind of what our blogger hero should have done.  Does Jamie Dimon hate American homeowners?  I don't know.  I sincerely doubt it.  But JPMorgan Chase's policies certainly hurt American homeowners.  Far better to illustrate that.

    Which really gets to the heart of this.  Journalists have been debating who is and isn't a journalism since, basically, forever.  It's mostly been a status thing about where you work, how wide your readership is and how much you get paid.

    But I say forget the semantics.  If you can show, rather than tell, you won't run into any problems.  Calling somebody a thuggish criminal is fun, but sometimes actionable.  Detailing somebody's thuggish behavior is more fun and pretty much never actionable in the United States.

    The judge is right that Cox is not protected by the shield law, but it's not because she isn't a journalist. Even a bona-fide reporter can be sued for defamation. From the statute:

    The provisions of ORS 44.520 (1) do not apply with respect to the content or source of allegedly defamatory information, in civil action for defamation wherein the defendant asserts a defense based on the content or source of such information. [1973 c.22 ss.4,5; 1979 c.820 s.2]

    That's pretty definitive, and that's all the judge had to rule. The question of whether she's a journalist is moot. And his attempt to define "journalist" restrictively appears flawed: 

    "Medium of communication" has its ordinary meaning and includes, but is not limited to, any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.

    There's an absence of case law that the judge mistakenly tried to fill here. But yeah, the ruling that Cox did defame the lawyer looks like the right one.

    Here in Quebec, the government has floated legislation defining who is and who isn't a journalist, ostensibly to clarify what their rights are. Virtually every reporter, editor and publisher in the province opposes any government intervention.

    acanuck, you make an interesting point.  Was the judge taking the opportunity to dismiss bloggery in general?  Maybe.  It really didn't make sense to draw the difference between journalism and blogging when he later ruled that defamation would be treated the same in either case.

    Did this same judge decide on the 2 mil settlement?  If so, he must really have it in for Crystal Cox.  Wonder what she ever did to him?  Or what the lawyer did for him?

    No, the penalty was decided by a jury. And Cox has no money, so the lawyer will never collect it.

    I'm sorry, but the journalist/not a journalist discussion might be interesting to those who blog regularly, but they are a sideshow to this case.  The real question is: how the hell could they award an attorney Two-and-a-Half freakin Million Dollars because a blogger said some bad things about him?   People don't get awards that bbig for a  child killed by a corporation's nelgigence, for chrissake! How can this court possibly justify any damages other than nominal ones, and maybe court costs?  Granted, I'm basing this on the links provided here, but this aspect of the case seems a true travesty of justice.

    Outstanding point that failed to even reach my radar because I'm so damn cynical.

    Good point, and I admit I was too busy working on the other aspects to grasp the full meaning of that outrageous settlement.  It'll, of course, be appealed and I can't imagine the blogger will actually have to pay anything anywhere near that amount.  This is one to watch, for sure.


    I get confused.

    Bascially I am a PJanalyst!

    PJA is the proper acronym.

    Just some necessities for such a fine profession.

    Fireproof PJ's are a must.

    Depends and well as a bib help the process in that it protects the person of the PJA.

    PJA's never receive remuneration for their efforts.

    PJA's have secret sources including leads to blogs that nobody in their right mind would enjoy. We must stay away from 'right' minds.

    PJA's understand that best evidence provides that the earth is at least 4 billion years of age, that the universe is close to 10 billion years older than the earth, corporations own most of the repubs and half of the dems, judges really do know not that much more than regular people, religion is the dopiate of the people, Corporate America is not really against the minimum wage except that 80% of the people should receive no more than that minimum wage, MSM really is the enemy of humankind, nothing will ever get better, repubs lie every fucking time they open their mouths, the Constitution was a seagoing vessel that could be destroyed by one single drone in this age and time, most of the folks who rule this nation are either ignoramuses or people attempting to make as much money as the person known as Prince, laws protect those who stole property and would like to keep that property, CEO's do not and never did 'earn' their monies, Capitalism is a pretense for theft, national resources are there for the taking by the rich, the social contract is a pretense for enslavement by the corporate class and American Idol is one of the dumbest presentations ever to be televised.


    Well, I would say "Sweet dreams" but I can see you're not in the mood.  ;>)


    Damn!  And all this time, I thought DD was a Republican!

    As I was reading all of this, I wondered about Michigan's shield laws (not that I would ever need them) and this is what I found (last update April, 2008):

    Both shield laws protect "a reporter or other person who is involved in the gathering or preparation of news for broadcast or publication." The shields appear to cover anyone who is involved in spreading "news" to the public, which should cover many online publishers and non-traditional journalists. However, Michigan courts have not had a chance to address the meaning of this statutory language and have not defined "news."

    Looks like interpretations are going to be muddied and open to challenge for a while yet, until there's some sort of consensus on what is or is not journalism.

    Interesting reading in a blog post by Mathew Ingram, where he writes about a lawsuit brought by Apple against a blogger in Washington state who they accused of revealing secrets.  The appeals court ruled that the blogger had the same rights as a reporter:

    Petitioners … like any newspaper or magazine, … operated enterprises whose raison d’etre was the dissemination of a particular kind of information to an interested readership… In no relevant respect do they appear to differ from a reporter or editor for a traditional business-oriented periodical who solicits or otherwise comes into possession of confidential internal information about a company.

    And, as Ingram notes, the same logic can apply to on-scene video-recording:

    In a decision by the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit earlier this year involving a case, a judge ruled that a man who recorded a video of police beating a man in Boston was entitled to the same protection as the mainstream press. Judge Kermit Lipez said this protection arguably extended to any “citizen journalist” and not just to members of the traditional media, saying the availability of devices like smartphones “means that… news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper” and that such changes “make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”

    I worry that if we paint "journalism" with too broad a brush it no longer has meaning.  There still has to be a distinction, I think.  Would proof of some kind of payment define a journalist?  If so, how much is enough?  Would a written contract do it?  How specific would it have to be?  Length of time blogging?  Good writing skills?  Who decides?

    If every long-time blogger disseminating information can qualify in the law's eyes as a journalist, as it does in some states under shield laws, what kind of chaos will that eventually create in the courts?

    Yet, if some bloggers perform like journalists shouldn't there be some protections for them? 

    I think of journalists as I do lawyers or any licensed professionals -- that is, there has been some extensive training involved and they've learned the ethics and rules of the trade along the way.  Except that journalists don't have to be licensed and credentials aren't mandatory.  And bloggers are even less constrained. 

    But in the name of transparency, citizen journo/bloggers could be extremely useful and might require the same protections.

    Looks like there's going to be a bit of upheaval until this thing is settled.  Should be interesting.



    I'm a journalist, Ramona, and I disagree. There doesn't have to be a distinction in law between a professional journalist and an amateur blogger. Both should be equally protected, and both should be equally subject to laws against defaming someone or maliciously spreading false information.

    The U.S. Bill of Rights prohibits "abridging freedom of the speech, or of the press." It doesn't mention electronic media, twitter, TV or radio. But it's clear that, like the press, all are covered by the overriding right to free speech. 

    You rightly point out the key problem that arises when you try to define journalists (supposedly in order to assign them extra protections): who decides? I would fight any attempt to license or certify journalists. Do you need a journalism degree to qualify? I never got one. Do you need an employer? Those are increasingly hard to find. 

    To my mind, you're a journalist if you disseminate information or opinions while respecting journalistic ethics and standards. Research what you write, seek out multiple and reliable sources for facts, get both sides of the story -- in short, seek the truth. Sometimes you'll still get it wrong; if so, retract the error. And if you're going to call anyone "a thug and a thief," don't do it to a lawyer.

    Good points, acanuck.  Thanks.  I still think the word "journalist" has distinct connotations and needs a category of its own.

    I found this piece by Harry Shearer called "Who IS a Journalist?".  He wrote it in 2005. See what you think.  (Okay, I had to laugh but it didn't help my confusion any.)

    And this piece by Jay Rosen about "Citizen Journalism".  (Still chewing on it but I'll pass it along.  Good comments, too.)

    His definition:  "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."

    Everything changed with the advent of blogger templates, making it easy for anyone at all to set up a page that looks like an online periodical and create the impression that a journalist is in charge. 

    But you're right, acanuck.  Whatever the title, the rules and consequences should be the same.

    Jay Rosen's definition is a good one. I like Shearer's anecdote about the NPR reporter getting him booted from the O.J. Simpson trial, but that may be more a case of wanting his seat than really looking down at bloggers. Print journalists especially realize that the internet is killing their industry, beating newspapers on price, variety of viewpoints and -- crucially -- timeliness. News that's more than 24 hours old is ancient history.

    Bloggers have played a big role in democratizing access to information. But because so many have no training, they've diluted the standards that print media once upheld. Cash-strapped papers have in turn cut back on editing and proofreading, letting even the basics slip -- things like grammar, spelling and punctuation. So there has been a downside. But on the whole, enabling more people to share a wider range of information has to be a net benefit for society. 

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