Declaring Who is a ‘Journalist’ is No Easy Matter


HankPlante2By Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz

I sat at the “press table” at a recent California Republican Convention covering the event for my TV station, when I started making small talk with the “reporter” next to me.

It turned out he was a dentist from Southern California who was writing a story about the convention for his personal blog. His official GOP convention press credentials, worn around his neck like mine, wouldn’t have given way his real job.

And that’s precisely why President Obama will have a tough time getting a federal shield law passed that would protect journalists from revealing their sources. The problem: Who is a journalist today?

Everyone in 2013 has a cell phone camera and an Internet connection. Everyone can find some online site to post a photo or an opinion. Should everyone be protected from law enforcement agencies asking about their sources or their work? There is no answer that’s easy enough for Congress to decide.

The 40 states that do have local shield laws are constantly dealing with who gets protected under them and who doesn’t. California’s shield law is specific about protecting a “publisher, editor or reporter,” but most interpretations say it probably also protects freelancers and stringers. Isn’t that everybody?

Journalists in this country aren’t licensed or even credentialed by any official agency. Want a “press pass?” Make one yourself with Photoshop. Want to alter a picture? Who’s stopping you? Want to make up your own facts? It will take hours to discover your deception and correct it after you’ve posted your story worldwide.

The American “journalist” who is widely credited for serving more jail time than any other for refusing to turn over his video to police, may have never been a journalist in the first place.

It was in 2005 when blogger Josh Wolf was videotaping a demonstration in San Francisco that got out of hand. Federal officials subpoenaed his video, and when Wolf refused to turn it over he wound up serving 226 days in federal prison.

Wolf became a cause célèbre among some (but not all) journalists’ organizations, even receiving awards from a few. Charges against him were eventually dropped, but he was freed before a final question could be answered: Was this freelancer a real journalist? Did he have a right to say no to the authorities?

That’s an answer we’re still looking for in this new media landscape, and one that only gets more complicated with every click of a smartphone.

Hank Plante is an Emmy and Peabody-winning journalist who spent three decades reporting for the CBS TV stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He lives in Palm Springs. Email him at hankplante1@gmail.com. This article originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun.


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There are 3 comments for this post

  1. avatar Noozeyeguy says:

    The California shield law, as enshrined in the California Constitution, Article I, Section 2(b), defines a journalist as a “… person connected with or employed by” print or electronic media, or “any person who has been so connected or employed.” There is a specific mention of “news commentary,” which one could logically extend to any person writing a letter to the editor… or commenting on a blog like this one. Conversely, California Penal Code Section 409.5(d) (which governs emergency closures of areas to public access) is more specific: “Nothing in this section shall prevent a duly authorized representative of any news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network from entering the areas closed pursuant to this section.” In practical application, that has meant granting access solely to those holding “official” press credentials, such as those issued by law-enforcement agencies. That’s the same criteria used by the Secret Service to vet individuals for access to Presidential events.

    All that aside, the proliferation of “alternative” and citizen-sourced journalism across all media platforms makes any ready distinction difficult. One could easily argue that a person who provides cell-phone video to a TV station or newspaper has met the “connection” test of the California Constitution. And one cannot define a media outlet solely by reach, as any blogger on “teh interwebz” has a potential audience of pretty much the whole Western world. Nor can we readily dismiss self-published journalism: remember that Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was created by a man described as “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.”

    Perhaps the best test would be Potter Stewart’s famous concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, regarding pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Thomas Paine made corsets? I never knew that! Thanks for the info.

    As far as the sorry state of modern journalism goes, I’m not sure a lot of people with full-time jobs at media outlets merit the title. I read an AP story a few weeks ago that claimed the sun rose in San Jose over the Santa Cruz Mountains–which are to the West of San Jose. A quick trip to Google Maps would have straightened this “reporter” out. But they clearly never bothered. Which leads me to ask: What happened to research? What happened to truth? What happened to spelling and grammar?

  3. avatar gdewar says:

    It’s important to remember in the Josh Wolf case, once a judge reviewed the tape in question it was determined it was of no value as “news” nor was it relevant to the federal government’s actions either. It was a manufactured crisis over a piece of tape that was basically useless.

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