Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bloggers/journalists friction redux

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)

It still amazes me how both pride and fear can contaminate what might otherwise prove to be a rational debate. On Feb. 22, I came across a LinkedIn discussion thread for the group Online reporters and editors, in which a blogger was trying to drum up support for a petition to have bloggers declared journalists en masse.

The idea is ridiculous on its face. However, so were some of the responses of professional journalists. Some reared up and sniffed their noses at the prospect, noting they had invested time and money in a college education even before they entered the field. Bloggers, some of that thinking goes, are not journalists and have sullied the reputation of those who truly ply the trade by pushing their agendas and opinions on a public that no longer distinguishes between journalists and bloggers and propaganda machines like Fox News.

I thought I would share my contribution to that thread:

I think there is a lot of angst out there among professional journalists about bloggers because generally, there is no distinction between bloggers and journalists.

From the journalist’s perspective, there is nothing to distinguish the work of a professional trained to adhere to standards such as those espoused by the (Society of Professional Journalsts) and bloggers, some of whom write to present their viewpoint as fact, and some of whom write as true journalists.

There also is a great deal of resentment among many professional journalists who perceive bloggers, a.k.a. citizen journalists, as a threat. Why? Because many publishers greedily have eyed citizen journalists as an opportunity for free content on their websites. Free content means lesser need for professionally written/composed content. That equates to fewer jobs.

That, in turn, becomes a breeding ground for other resentments and sweeping generalizations about bloggers that, like all sweeping generalizations, are sometimes true and sometimes false.

Like many journalists, I invested a lot in a college education that led me into a relatively low-paying profession, although I knew that going into it. Still, I can understand how it might chafe for some seeing a blogger or other citizen journalist making a name for themselves without the educational or professional credentials other journalists have had to earn.

Accentuating the resentment even more, however, is that so many of us have been laid off since 2007, although layoffs in the profession have been ongoing for far longer. When you've dedicated your life and your passion to a profession and suddenly cannot get back into it, you certainly would feel some resentment toward these “upstarts” in the blogosphere.

Of course what many of these journalists forget is that as a profession, our roots are in citizen journalism, and those roots bear very little resemblance to the journalism done today, mostly under high professional standards. In its infancy, however, men like Benjamin Franklin wrote their news sheets with no such professional or ethical standards such as those espoused by the SPJ, which I endorse wholeheartedly. These early citizen journalists were men and women writing with raw passion about the perceived tyranny over America, among other issues.

That all said, I'd be reluctant to sign on to a petition that gives bloggers carte blanche treatment as journalists. I certainly do believe some (perhaps many -- I have absolutely no idea really) bloggers operate as journalists do, with integrity and faithfulness to truth, accuracy, fairness, transparency and accountability.

But certainly not all bloggers do so.

There also is a constitutional issue here that is of larger concern in this matter as well. Defining by statute exactly what constitutes a journalist is a very slippery slope in terms of press freedom because it ends up ultimately putting the government in charge of regulating the watchdog. That is patently unacceptable to any advocate for the Fourth Estate who understands how fragile is the line that protects press freedoms.

I believe there does exist within the framework of the law some protections for bloggers and other citizen journalists, but they vary from state to state, just as shield and sunshine laws vary from state to state. That said, it behooves EVERY blogger out there to learn and write within that framework. It is fairly obvious the courts will make a distinction between a professionally employed journalist and a blogger, and the press does enjoy some significant advantages in a courtroom setting, for example, when it comes to rules about libel and slander and defamation.

But even trained journalists often are not aware of the laws in their own states. I was shocked to learn, when I worked in Wyoming, that a journalist’s notebooks and sources are not protected under the law — I was subpoenaed by an insurance company after writing a story about someone who claimed the company was treating them unfairly. I called the insurance company for a response and was threatened with a subpoena. It arrived the next day. My publisher did his best to quash the subpoena, but ultimately there was nothing I could do legally but submit. I was grateful my notes had no sources needing protection.

So if you are a blogger who writes with the intent of being a journalist, know your limits and work within them. But please do keep writing. I strongly believe citizen journalism can add something to the profession that grew out of it.

By the way, I'm a 27-year newspaper veteran who started blogging about my experiences in December 2010, two weeks after I was laid off. … I intend to return to my calling as a journalist, but as many of you know already, that intention faces a steep, uphill walk with no guarantee of success.