For several years now, journalists have been fiercely arguing over “who is a journalist” and more precisely are bloggers journalists? A judge in Montana has just ruled in a defamation case that Crystal Cox, a self-defined “investigative blogger”, who was sued by an investment firm for a defamatory posting, was not a journalist and therefore not entitled to protection under media shield laws that allow journalists not to identify their sources.
In a judgment that sent shock waves in bloggers’ communities, US District Judge Marco Hernandez said according to Associated Press: “ Although [the] defendant is a self-proclaimed 'investigative blogger' and defines herself as 'media,' the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law."
He then went on to order her to pay US$2.5m to investment firm Obsidian Finance Group and its co-founder Kevin Padrick for alleging defaming him in several of her posts.
Cox considered herself to be a journalist and insisted that her posts – a mixture of facts, commentary and opinion – were based on information supplied by a whistle-blower she refused to name.
In many parts of the US, shield laws protects journalists from revealing their sources unless it is relevant, unobtainable by any other way, and the need for the information is compelling to the public interest. Forty states currently have shield laws and they vary from state to state. Oregon, like many others, has shield laws that exclude online publishers from protection.
In 2009 the US House of Senate discussed a federal shield law but could not agree about who should be considered a journalist, leaving it to states to enact their own laws. It looks that in the end it will be the Supreme Court that will be asked to step in to define who and what media is.