Whether posting breaking news or news about the break-up of their latest relationship, bloggers suddenly seem to be everywhere.
Loosely defined as online diaries, the estimated 8 million blogs saturating the online universe include everything from personal rants to serious reporting. In fact, bloggers have become so ubiquitous they now have their own segment on CNN's “Inside Politics,” and major research organizations like the Brookings Institution invite them to participate in panel discussions.
The innovative way bloggers disseminate information — constant updates, conversational tones and heavy doses of opinion — have The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune taking notice: The front “pages” of their Web sites now link to various blogs.
Despite the deluge of mainstream media attention, controversy over bloggers' use of confidential sources has raised a fundamental question: Are bloggers true journalists or just overcaffeinated computer jockeys with attitude?
For instance, in a California case being widely watched, Apple Computer contends that three blogger sites — Thinksecret.com, Appleinside.com and Powerpage.org — should disclose their sources of leaked company secrets. The sites say California's shield law and the Constitution's First Amendment give them the privilege to protect the identities of their confidential sources.
Since blogs are such a new and relatively unstudied media phenomenon, no one agrees on whether bloggers merit the same protections enjoyed by mainstream journalists. No court has set such a precedent, and the issue is confused by the wide variety of blogs. While bloggers can take credit for discovering the information that took down the careers of both CBS's Dan Rather and CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan, most of their colleagues seem to be posting mundane items about their own lives with no news value.
“The question should not be whether [all] bloggers are journalists, but which bloggers are journalists?” says Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents two of the Web sites involved in the Apple case. “The medium of expression should not be the determinate of whether or not you're a journalist. What makes journalism journalism is not the format but the content, and my clients have been publishing daily news, feature stories and the latest happening about Apple products for years,” Opsahl says.
A California Superior Court judge sidestepped the question, ruling in March 2005 that the state's shield law did not protect anyone — journalist or not — who disseminates “stolen property.” However, the question will undoubtedly come up in the foundation's appeal, Opsahl says.
The judge misapplied the test used to determine when California's constitutional reporter's privilege can be overcome, Opsahl says, insisting that the question of whether bloggers are reporters is still at the heart of the case. “Apple would never go after a mainstream media organization in the same way,” he adds.
Garrett Graff of FishbowlDC.com recently became the first blogger to receive White House press credentials and considers his work journalism. He agrees that the material published on the Web sites involved in the Apple case is journalism worthy of protection because the sites are “designed to report, break and disseminate news.” But he says the work of those bloggers is more the exception than the rule.
“There are a small number — maybe several thousand of the about 8 million bloggers — who would consider themselves journalists, but the vast majority of bloggers would not consider their blogs journalism,” Graff says.
Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette (Courtesy Ana Marie Cox)
“What I do on Wonkette is not journalism,” says Ana Marie Cox of her “gossipy, raunchy and potty-mouthed” blog. But that does not mean that all blogs are without journalistic merit, she adds. “If bloggers are presenting their work as reporting, then we judge it by the standards of reporting. And if they present it as commentary and analysis and snarkiness, then there are fewer standards to go by.”
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in Arlington, Va., agrees. Her organization does not think anybody with a computer can call himself or herself a journalist. “That's not journalism,” she says, of those posting musings or family information on the Web.
Two bills pending in Congress propose a federal shield law for reporters. One, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., covers bloggers, while the other — sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. — does not. Dalglish says a shield law that does not include bloggers would be “unfortunate, but I would probably support it.”
Los Angles Times media columnist David Shaw believes extending any federal shield law to bloggers would harm journalism as a whole. “If the courts allow every Tom, Dick and Matt who wants to call himself a journalist to invoke the privilege to protect confidential sources, the public will become even less trusting than it already is of all journalists,” Shaw wrote. “That would damage society as much as it would the media.”
— Kate Templin