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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bloggers and journalism

Tim Gebhart raises the question of whether bloggers are journalists. He notes that versions of a "shield law" which protects reporters from having to reveal information they obtain in confidence are making their way through Congress. Should, he asks, such protections extend to bloggers?

I am not sure such protections should always be extended to reporters. I worked with a reporter whose case became a cause celebre in journalistic circles. In fact, that is the reason she was given a job at the newspaper I worked for. She had written some stories that alleged hanky panky in the Colorado Supreme Court. She was subpoenaed to testify at a hearing on the matter and refused to reveal the source of her information. She was sent to jail.

While she was at the newspaper I worked for, she claimed to do investigative reporting. As I was a coordinator of investigative projects, this created a strange relationship, because she tried to appropriate work done by the investigative teams. When these teams received confidential information, their prime objective was to document that information through other sources before publishing stories on it. This reporter persistently claimed to have inside information which she put in her stories. When the investigative reporting teams had confidential information, the team members knew who it came from. Evaluating the trustworthiness of such sources was a routine part of investigative reporting. We did not publish rumors or false information, but when we had a reliable source, we protected the identity. Many sources operate like Deep Throat in the Watergate case. They give you information so that you may hunt for evidence and build a case. They tell you what is going on; they suggest where the evidence can be found; it is up to the investigative reporters to find and prove it.

We found many dubious claims in the work of the celebrated reporter, but she invoked her fame whenever questions of reliability came up, and the investigative reporters had to learn how to work around her. Shortly after I left journalism and was in graduate school, I met an editor who had worked on Denver newspapers and worked on the same story for which the reporter was jailed. We discussed the case, and he said that reporters working state government knew of some suspicious matters going on in the state supreme court. Some decisions and the circumstances in which they were made pointed to some deal-making. This was much discussed among the journalists working the stories, and their analysis led to an obvious conclusion about what was going on. While the journalists were trying to find evidence to nail down the story, the reporter I worked with published an account and attributed the information to an undisclosed source.

The editor told me that when the reporter was subpoenaed and asked to reveal her source, she could not because she did not have any. She was using information being developed by other reporters and discussed among themselves, but who were withholding publication while they were building documentation. The reporter was more interested in getting her name on a scoop than in doing the hard, frustrating work of nailing down a story.

For real journalists, shield laws will be a benefit. For those who practice journalistic shysterism, they will shield the mendacious and incompetent and merely self-promoting. Real journalists may have egos, but they are educated and disciplined enough to know the difference between serving their profession and serving their egos.

The bills in Congress, as Tim Gebhart explains, define real journalists in one case as those who earn a substantial portion of their income from the practice of journalism. In the other case, they are defined simply as those who are engaged in the collecting and dissemination of information for journalistic purposes. The bills, apparently, try to disinguish people who are functionaries of the Fourth Estate from those who are devoted to propagandic purposes. Still, as Gebhart asserts, some bloggers seem to qualify for protections under shield laws.

However, most blogs are not written to provide reliable information. They are written to express opinions. Very few blogs develop those opinions from the careful gathering and verifying of information. Rather, information is generally fabricated and filtered to fit preheld opinions. Very few blogs rise to the level of contributing to fact-based discourse. However, many blog writers suffer delusions of competence and relevance, and proceed under the assumption that their expressions of inflated ego should somehow matter to anyone but themselves.

A danger of shield laws is that they might protect the phony and illegitimate. Journalists have traditionally borne the responsibility for protecting sources by going to jail if necessary. It might serve the flow of accurate and reliable information more to keep it that way and put bloggers on notice that they might be put in a position to reveal sources or go to jail.

Another restraining aspect of journalism that seems to have changed since my time as a full-time journalist is the matter of libel. With a few exceptions regarding public figures, any untrue negative statement about a person was considered libelous and damage was presumed. The rules were so stringent that very few libel cases against news media went to court because any false or inaccurate statement would result in the award of damages. Consequently, most libel cases were settled out of court. And journalists were extremely diligent in avoiding damaging allegations or in verifying the accuracy of such statements if they were made.

Blogs, particularly in the comment sections, routinely publish statements that are untrue and libelous, statements that go beyond the privileges of fair comment and criticism. The cost of instituting legal action is more than any damages a plaintiff could hope to collect.

The right to free expression has trumped the right not to be defamed.

While journalism has its sub-par practitioners and needs to be called into account on occasion, for some blogs scurrility and maligning are standard fare. Many are devoted to ad hominem attacks, not the discussion of information.

Some people are celebrating what they call "citizen journalism." Others are deploring the quality of information in circulation. Journalists are under financial siege and popular discredit, but if they are to restore the standards of the Fourth Estate, they will have to pay the prices in distinguishing themselves from incompetent and irresponsible chatter that infects so much of the information that is floating around.

False information is the enemy of a free people. We live in perilous times when freedom is measured in terms of how much false information is in circulation.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States