An old adage goes: “don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” The implication was that journalists control the printing press and can control the message. This used to be true. Journalists oversaw what went out over the radio waves, television stations and the printing press. With the advent of the Internet, however, that has all changed. Now, new questions must be asked in the digital age: Who is a journalist? And, what makes a journalist, a journalist? The simple definition of journalism, or a journalist can be someone collecting information and disseminating it to a large segment of the public. In his 2007 book “We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and the Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age,” Scott Gant says the most recent New Oxford American Dictionary defines journalism as an “activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines or of broadcasting news on radio or television.” Today, the definition is blurred as the power to share information with millions of people is open to anyone with an Internet connection. The question is not about the process but about who is afforded certain privileges as a result of being identified as a journalist. Privileges include but are not limited to access to the levers of power, easy access to sensitive information, protection from prosecution by law and legal protection from revealing sources etc.
Gant illustrates his point through several cases including two journalists who investigated steroid cases of athletes for the San Francisco Chronicle and were held in contempt and other high profile cases involving The New York Times.
However, there are also cases that are low profile which emphasize the problem of being subpoenaed and asked to testify when practicing journalism. A journalist for the Wilkes-Barre Times in Pennsylvania was issued three subpoenas requesting for information about an interview he conducted with a murder suspect, for instance.
Gant also raises the case of a freelance video blogger, Josh Wolf, who spent 226 days in jail for refusing to hand over videotape of a violent confrontation between police and protesters where a police officer suffered a fractured skull. The case, say advocates, renewed the debate of a need for a federal shield law that protects bloggers and freelancers as well as journalists.
Gant argues that the government shouldn’t be in the business of allocating privileges to people based on whether they work for an established media outlets such as a TV station, radio or print publication. “The media establishment’s claim of priority over other citizens is pervasive — and accepted at many levels of federal and state government,” he wrote. “Whatever the merits of this perspective in the past, the transformation of journalism necessitates that we reconsider the practice of reflexively extending professional journalists rights and privileges not available to others engaged in the practice of journalism.”
He points out that journalists have special seating during important speeches, travel permits to war-zones and other press related privileges that ordinary citizens do not have access to. These privileges come with responsibilities and he says it is vitally necessary to protect a “cadre of energetic, smart, and well-funded professional journalists.” Still, he says the dividing line is becoming more blurry and we should acknowledge that. As the mainstream media shrinks in size due to budget constraints and layoffs, bloggers and other non-traditional journalism practitioners must fill the void. It is outdated to treat the new media as second class citizens in the world of journalism, Gant argues. “Journalism has been elegantly described as carrying on and amplifying conversation among the people themselves,” he wrote. “The Web and other technological advances have enabled many more of us to participate in these conversations.”
Gant’s argument is timely and important. Democracy demands a thriving, professional press to be a watchdog on government and the powerful. But the limitations on professional journalists are also an opportunity for citizen journalists. The principles of journalism will remain the same even when the medium changes, however, all those practicing the profession must have equal protection.
Salem Solomon (@salem_solomon) is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C. and working on her professional practicum at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service.