Citizens Are All Potential Journalists––So Let Us All Have the Same Protections

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I’m always a bit bemused when a government official, some Feinstein or other––even journalists themselves––try to make a case that citizen journalists shouldn’t experience the same perks and protections as “established” journalists. The issue’s presentation is generally greatly distorted in my view. The most common argument––seemingly logical, but utterly shortsighted––goes something like, “every guy in his parents’ basement typing up a blog can’t be considered a journalist.”

Yes, this is true, but so far there hasn’t really been a reason for us to do that. Every guy in his mom’s basement isn’t disseminating information vital to national interests, or even significantly popular, and thus is never facing public scrutiny or governmental prosecution.

So who cares about 36-year-old-unemployed Todd writing 9/11 conspiracy theories with gaping holes in them from a his stepmom’s garage in Santa Monica?

While credibility can be earned and lost for mainstream outlets, the potential credibility of a blogger is also very much built upon their track record, at least for the most part. Due to how much easier a blog can be discredited and picked apart, it is usually in a blogger’s interest to put a lot of effort into being thorough. The mainstream doesn’t really face this problem since (as I’ve noted before) credibility is far easier to exploit in a non-linked medium, as “objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

Only bloggers with enough tout to be cited and referenced by the mainstream really affect the larger public understanding of a media narrative. These people are the Glenn Greenwalds and the Mayhill Fowlers, who believe in transparency at unrivaled levels, but don’t buy into oldschool journalism beliefs of there being an acceptable level of cronyism between journalists and public officials.

The problem, I suppose, is that we still have the Matt Drudges and Andrew Breitbarts, the three-quarters-of-the-time wrong but consistently-cited-and-shared category of journalists.

But don’t these gossip-machines exist in the mainstream too? The New York Post doesn’t exactly have great track record when it comes to accuracy (the Boston Bomber debacle alone calls up reminders of a trove of transgressions). So let’s just call Drudge the Post of the Blogosphere––the widely disseminated trash of its category. There will always be garbage, no matter what the medium. In the blogosphere, that garbage can be shared by a hardcore niche base, but won’t be seen as legitimate by anyone outside of it until it is referenced by a “legitimate” outlet. Original mainstream content is much more independently valid in the public’s perceptions, and its accuracy is often seen as absolute (How many times have we all heard: “No its true! It was in the Times”?).

And then there are the (pre-bittergate) Mayhill Fowlers, attempting to build a reputation, but without wide enough dissemination to have real prominence or impact. Yet in today’s day and age, someone like her––particularly if working through a larger website––can suddenly burst into the mainstream with a hard-news bombshell. How, then, do we decide that person has transitioned to a new level of legitimacy and is thus deserving of different protections? In the case of bittergate, there was no anonymous source to keep confidential, or any real scrutiny over her actions, but the ethical implications of Fowler’s presence at a closed media event were certainly debated.

This country and most intentionally don’t stipulate that a professional license must be obtained to be a practicing journalist, as this limits access to a field vital to public interest by making it accessible only to some. How then, can we argue that journalistic legitimacy must be proved through other means which are only accessible (or likely to occur) to some, be it number of readers, newsworthiness of content, or salaried employment?

After bittergate a lot of pundits noted that the controversy over her presence at the event should’ve been seen as irrelevant, as public officials shouldn’t be stating different opinions in closed events than public ones. So shouldn’t we all be able to use the same journalistic protections or reasons for access, providing, say, no further requirement than proof of a planned location for publishing (as this assumes the public could potentially find that published material to be of public importance?).

If only this debate were actually framed around what the purpose of Journalism is––to serve the public interest––rather than how to define the legitimacy of the profession, which is supposed to have no effect on journalistic activity. Shield laws and blogger access to political events should be extended further rather than limited, as they’ve only served the public where “established” outlets have failed to do so.

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