Burriss on Media: Journalists

Sep 23, 2013

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  One of the big questions we’ve had to deal with since the inception of the Internet is, “Who exactly is a journalist?” 

We’re pretty sure correspondents for major news outlets count.  What about freelance reporters?  Or lately, what about so-called “I-reporters,” apparently anyone with a cell phone camera who happens to take a picture of a newsworthy, or sometimes not-so-newsworthy, event?

Not-so-many-years ago the questions may have been simply academic, but now the Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a media shield law that allows journalists a legal right not to disclose anonymous sources.  While the idea of a national shield law may sound like a good thing, the new law would still allow the government broad “national security” powers to questions journalists about sources, and would also allow the government to define just who is, and who is not, a journalist.

It is this “definition” provision of the law that is the most troubling.  The proposed law creates a two-tier system, whereby one group of reporters are automatically protected, and another class in which the courts would decide if a person’s actions are legitimate journalism or not.

In other words, the government is setting itself up to decide who is a journalist and who is not, and what is, or is not a journalistic organization.  I’m pretty sure most major news organizations qualify.  But I’d be willing to bet at least a few donuts that WikiLeaks would not qualify.  I also wonder if reporters for organizations such as al Jazeera would come under heightened scrutiny.

Interestingly, these provisions fly in the face of numerous recent court decisions that deal with the act of journalism, rather than with who a journalist is.  Court have also declined to try to distinguish “legitimate” from “illegitimate news.

Actually, we already have a pretty good shield law, one already passed by Congress.  It’s called the First Amendment, it has been protecting journalism for some 200 years, and I don’t think it needs to be updated.

I’m Larry Burriss.