Ummm … what, exactly, is a journalist?

A libel case in Oregon, US, has highlighted an issue that is already troubling the media in this country – what, exactly, is a journalist?

It used to be clear enough. You got paid badly, worked for a newspaper, magazine or broadcaster and fiddled your expenses.

But the growing army of citizen journalists and bloggers makes the distinction less clear.

Already, Labour’s shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis has called for a system where journalists could be licensed, and struck off for bad behaviour.

In Oregon, Crystal Cox, an ‘investigative blogger’ is being sued for defaming an investment firm on at least three different websites.

In Oregon, ‘real’ journalists receive special immunity for libel actions – a bit like privilege in the UK.

Cox hoped to use this, and asked for the case to be dismissed. But District Judge Hernandez refused.

One of his reasons was she didn’t provide any evidence that she was a journalist.

What type of evidence? The judge spelled it out:

  1. Journalism education.
  2. Credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity.
  3. Proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest.
  4. Keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted.
  5. Mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources.
  6. Creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others.
  7. Contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

The judge concluded: ‘Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media”. Civil liberties groups in the US are already protesting about the threat to free speech.

Some of Judge Hernandez’s criteria were reminiscent of the UK’s Judge Nicholls’ 10 tests of responsible Journalism – a condition of the Reynolds Defence.

So far in the UK, no-one has attempted to separate journalists from citizen journalists/bloggers. Mr Justice Leveson may try. Time will tell.

The nearest we’ve had is the Lord Chief Justice’s announcement that only a journalist or legal commentator may Tweet from court without consent. The ‘others’ have to ask.

I can foresee a time when journalists are licensed in this country, the same as doctors and jockeys. And I don’t think this would be a bad thing.

But I’m sure there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who don’t meet the criteria.

As for those criteria … maybe District Judge Hernandez has given us somewhere to start?

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