Bloggers, Journalists, and Grays in Black and White

Remember the joke when we – some of us – were kids? Here’s how it went:

“What’s black and white and red (read) all over?” And the answer, of course, “a newspaper.”

My, my, but times have changed. Little in the 21st century seems black and white, including the roles and responsibilities of media, and communications in general. As for the definition of a journalist (and protections afforded to him or her), it may be simpler to point out the journalist who is also a blogger, rather than to point to a blogger and identify him or her as a journalist. And why are these distinctions significant?

According to a discussion on bloggers versus journalists, appearing on the New York Times “Room for Debate,” these definitions matter. And they matter a great deal.

Journalistic Rigor

As the result of a recent ruling in Oregon in which a federal judge has denied state shield law protections to a blogger, it’s impossible not to address the complexities (and pitfalls) of this online medium.

Stuart Benjamin, Professor of Law at Duke writes:

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted statutes giving journalists some protection against subpoenas, and in each case the question arises of exactly who is covered.

Professor Benjamin goes on to mention a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, from which we look at intentional “malice” when it comes to misrepresenting or misreporting facts about a public person or, for that matter, a private one.

As I understand the principle, absent malice, journalists are protected from being sued.

So what about bloggers? Bloggers aren’t reporters (necessarily), and nor are they journalists. Does that mean it can and should be a free-for-all? (Some might argue it already is.)

But should those writing in a blogging format be allowed to say anything and with little or no substantiation? Should we all be more circumspect – and worried about being sued – when it comes to living our lives so transparently through social media?

(And on a side note, don’t we carry this tendency into our real lives, with a growing tendency to reveal TMI?)

Free Speech?

Another voice in this fray is attorney Kelli Sager, who asserts that bloggers should have the right to protections under shield laws (confidentiality of sources and documents), as well as retractions (to correct mistakes), thus placing bloggers beneath the same legal umbrella as mainstream journalists.

She contends that the medium is not the issue; the basic principles of free speech are.

Thinking through what I read and write, I find this entire area very concerning. We cannot expect bloggers to know what journalists or reporters learn, through education and experience. Nor should we exempt them, in my opinion, from understanding that some will read and assume accuracy, rigor, and expertise.

This discussion at the New York Times includes additional knowledgeable perspectives, and I recommend that you read. This conversation serves as a helpful reminder that we live in a litigious society, and what we say, how we say it – as well as our intentions – can easily be misconstrued. Moreover, taking explicit potshots (falsely?) to ruin another’s reputation can put the writer at risk.

I’m all for First Amendment rights, but ditto, when it comes to using our heads in a public forum.

I call myself a writer (and more)

I have been a journalist in particular fields; I have written for (print) newspapers, (online) media of various sorts, and (print) magazines. I consider myself a journalist, depending upon the circumstances.

Whether I am communicating for print or web, when in the role of journalist I exercise both caution and rigor.

I am also a writer, and a blogger. I try to exercise caution and rigor here as well – providing links, details, and elaborations where they seem appropriate. That said, I recognize both limitations (time, unpaid status) and freedoms (ease, convenience) that accompany the many purposes of web content.

  • How do you define yourself, if you write on the web?
  • Do you feel you must exercise caution when approaching specific topics?
  • Do you identify certain people you read as “journalists,” and others as bloggers?


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© D. A. Wolf


  1. says

    Good point. My organization hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren of MA the other night and a well-known journalist slipped in unnoticed which sent the campaign in a tizzy. He could’ve reported on EW’s candid words that would’ve served as fodder for the Rove machine; thank goodness he didn’t.

    I served as a journalist a long time ago for a Gannett paper but today, I see myself as someone who writes and has a blog. I keep in mind Anne Lamott’s advice regarding libel and confine anything defamatory against anyone in my personal journal.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I seem to recall that Lamott’s advice on libel was to change enough details so the person wouldn’t be recognizable (a more difficult challenge when writing autobiographically online; all the more reason I say I write “from” life rather than a diary of my life). Still – I agree with you, Belinda. Some specifics are for the personal journal. The challenge comes when you wish to share your experience so as to provide some comfort, camaraderie or even helpful information. It becomes a fine line to walk, and as you say, may be better taken off line – or worded with extraordinary care.

  2. says

    Very interesting.

    When I read a paper (and yes, I still read it in paper form), I view the news articles differently than the opinion pieces. When I read a nonfiction book, I read memoirs differently than biography. I personally hold the writers up to different standards based on the forum and format they have chosen. I don’t know what the impact of these various forms are in the law. Blogs seem to run the gamut of purpose and intent too. But looking at the purpose of writing just middies the water more.

    I think free speech is a wondrous thing. But, that doesn’t mean we can be malicious. I try to use my words carefully in public. On Facebook, my blog and even in emails. There are certain conversations I only have in person, and some things that simply don’t need to be said.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Facebook and Twitter can be deceptively tempting, Kate, as you point out. Sometimes we forget the world is listening! But I will find watching the discussion unfold around protections for all sorts of writers in the media, as well as responsibilities. (If only we could legislate a little common sense? I know. Not possible.)

  3. says

    I didn’t read that Lamott piece, but I do recall from my paralegal classes that no one can defame, slander, or libel, and that includes verbal as well as written. Interestingly enough, all of our elected officials in the Senate and House are protected from even these standards; they’re allowed to lie, slander and do whatever they want from the Floor. THAT is something I find much more troublesome than anything a blogger or even journalist can legally say or write. But I know, I’m digressing from the point.
    I’m on the Free Speech side. Responsibility should lie on everyone’s shoulders, bloggers and readers, to think and read critically. It’s going to take a while, but I think eventually, America will come around. What is also fascinating to me (and again, sort of besides your point) is how these decisions will be made globally. The internet, blogging, and the like are my best hopes for worldwide peace.

  4. says

    Be an informed reader. If you don’t know your sources, don’t trust your sources. If the issue is important to you, get multiple INDEPENDENT sources (sorry for the screaming, but many people don’t figure that out). I’d love it if readers of my stuff found it stimulating and threatening enough to respond and challenge me on my facts. Of course, that silence might be because I do my best to insure that my “facts” are able to stand up to any reasonable challenges.

  5. says

    I feel compelled (for reasons sometimes unknown to even myself) to write about my journey…I try to be very careful about what I post and how I post it because I realize that as I write about my life, I also write about people I care about deeply. This is not just my story but what I want to stress is – it is my perspective of this story that unfolds. Is it the complete story? Most certainly not. As a blogger and a reader, we need to keep this in mind — there is always another side of the story. What I want to stick to is how I am processing the events in my life; how one thing or another is either changing me for the better or not. It is a huge challenge to write from an emotionally controlled place about very emotional moments but it is a good exercise nonetheless. When I felt the most lost and alone, blogs and sites such as this provided me with comfort, direction, and a virtual community of like minded comrades I didn’t even know I needed. So my writing is an attempt to pay it forward, to share of myself so others may not feel so lonely or desolate. It is a fine and delicate line we walk, writing of our lives and thoughts…but, really, in this life, aren’t we always walking some fine line? :)

  6. says

    My favorite Sci Fi movie, Forbidden Planet was about an advanced civilization which disappeared overnight. They had invented a machine which instantly translated everyone’s thoughts into action. It had been assumed that this would be a great boon, but instead, everyone’s secret id was unleashed, free to commit mayhem at will. Sort of like the Internet.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Frightening! (Now I want to locate that movie, Wolf… ) And yes, sort of like the Internet. :( Then again, without the Internet, we wouldn’t be having this online conversation, now would we… :)

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