Coast Guard on Bloggers as Journalists: No!

The U.S. Coast Guard this week listed its criteria for considering individuals or organizations as “journalists” – at least for the purpose of Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, fees. Perhaps surprisingly, at least to some, they take a fairly hard-line approach to the issue, and do not automatically equate “media” with “journalist”. What this means is that – among other things – bloggers aren’t automatically “journalists”, at least to the USCG.

As a blogger myself, you might think this would upset me. You’d be very wrong.

The Coast Guard says:

“Whether alternative media (i.e. bloggers) are eligible for categorization as “representative of the news media” is an evolving legal issue based on the extent to which the alternative media has infused its content with sufficient journalistic rigor and whether it is organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public. Simply put, not all online content constitutes journalism…”

To be perfectly honest, I’m glad that someone has finally come to their senses. There’s a difference between “media” and “journalism”, and far too few people seem to recognize this fact. Not surprisingly, this is often the case with those who aren’t actually journalists, but who want the “special protections” of the “free press” under the First Amendment. In this case, it’s people wanting fee waivers for the FOIA (never mind that, in my opinion, the bloggers involved should be entitled to the same, at least in this specific instance); earlier this month, it was “independent journalists” at the RNC protests wanting immunity from arrest.

Writing, blogging, producing “media” of whatever form doesn’t automatically make one a “journalist”; Bob Woodward is a journalist; Tom Clancy is not. Noah and company at Danger Room are journalists; I am not. People who blog about their homework, boyfriends, the concerts they go to, and all the other kinds of personal crap aren’t journalists, either. Anonymous people who may or may not have actually contributed something to Indymedia aren’t journalists, either – however much they might want you to believe otherwise. (There aren’t many well-defined standards for what constitutes journalism, but objectivity – and – responsibility – are two recognized standards, both of which are impossible to assess or ensure where anonymous authors are concerned. Sadly, some of the most vocal proponents of this argument fail to distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity, which annoys me greatly, for what should be obvious reasons. My personal feeling is that two fundamental touchstones for journalism should be accountability and “public interest”, but that’s just me – and I know from personal experience that the government’s idea of “public interest” is often at odds, strangely enough, with that of the, um, public.)

On one hand, I’m sure some would-be, or wanna-be, internet journalists are upset that someone isn’t automatically ceding them the exalted rights and privileges of “traditional media”, and it’s easy to see how they come to the knee-jerk reaction that this is a bad thing. What the Coast Guard are really saying, though, is that they’ll examine the status of “journalists” on a case-by-case basis, which is as it, quite frankly, should be. The real issue to watch is whether government agencies start deciding that bloggers who don’t qualify as journalists for fee purposes are “commercial” requesters under the FOIA, rather than “all other” private individuals. I don’t make a profit from this site, and I certainly am not re-selling material requested under the FOIA, the way some folks do; I believe this to be true of most bloggers and other web-content (“new media”) authors who make use of the FOIA. If the government wants to say we’re not journalists, that’s fine with me – but if they start claiming everyone with a website – or even everyone with a website that runs ads – is a “business”, then we should all panic…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on September 24th, 2008| Comments Off on Coast Guard on Bloggers as Journalists: No!

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