June 24, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Are bloggers journalists? The 2011 edition of a question we’ve been asking for years.

Are bloggers journalists? The 2011 edition of a question we’ve been asking for years.

An interesting court verdict was handed down last week, and while I’ve seen some commentary on it, it wasn’t nearly as much as I thought there would be. The case of blogger Crystal Cox has the potential to draw a bright line between where a journalist ends and a blogger begins–or, it could just be a single court case with no long-term impact at all.

It’s been fairly common since blogs really came into their own in 2004/2006 to refer to bloggers as “citizen journalists.” Traditional media channels at first scoffed at, and then embraced this distinction, and bloggers from respected sites are regularly invited to press briefings, and everyone from the largest blogs with professional writers to small blogs authored by individuals are now pitched by PRs as media outlets. Bloggers are, more and more, being treated as journalists and blogs are treated as media outlets.

Which brings us to the case of Crystal Cox. A self-described investigative blogger, she has targeted a number of financial services companies in her blog posts, including an investment firm that took issue with some of the allegations she made. The company sued her, claiming defamation. Cox, who claims to have received some of the information she used in her posts from an insider at the company in question, argued that existing “shield laws” should allow her to protect her source.

The court disagreed. The $2.5 million judgment was handed down in favor of the investment firm–because Cox, as a blogger, didn’t fit the definition of a journalist described by Oregon’s shield law.

[Some side commentary here: Cox represented herself in court, and apparently plans to do the same on the appeal. I’m not certain this was the best route to take, considering she is potentially laying the groundwork for established case law defining bloggers.]

This could have a significant impact on bloggers everywhere. As a post on Giga Om discussing the case notes, the defamation decision would probably have held even if the shield law had applied to Cox. The Giga Om post asks the question probably on most bloggers’ minds: “if we are all journalists, should we all be protected?” It’s more than a fair question, it’s a question that anyone who posts news-ish pieces online should be asking.

Ultimately, as blogging and citizen journalism continues to evolve, we will most likely see more of these questions asked and settled. The landscape will continue to change–can we expect every blogger with a site to know and understand the legal ramifications of publishing content? Probably not. Can bloggers be treated differently than journalists? Should they be treated differently? What is the impact of citizen-produced content hosted on a major media site, like CNN’s iReports? (Which they cited as part of the reason for recent layoffs, and were quick to receive the Stephen Colbert treatment.)

There is room in the media landscape for blogs and mainstream media, for news that is broken on Twitter and news that is properly vetted before being released. One thing is certain: this question is probably a long way from being answered definitively, the sands are still shifting.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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