As Congress debates new Shield Law, question arises: Are bloggers really journalists?

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Are bloggers journalists?  Or more to the point — what does it matter if there’s agreement on the answer?

In light this summer’s Federal Scandal No. 3, involving the US Justice Department improperly accessing the phone records of AP and Fox reporters, it might.

 This question has mattered before, in states such as Oregon, where one ‘investigative blogger’ was sued for defamation and not granted the same protections as print journalists. In that case, blogger Crystal Cox was told by US District Judge Marco Hernandez that in order to “qualify for basic First Amendment protections like state shield laws, freelance journalists have to meet a rather stiff set of criteria.”

Seven criteria, to be exact: Education in journalism; Credentials or proof of affiliation with a recognized news entity; Proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; Keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; Mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; Creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; and Contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

These criteria may often be inapplicable, but it was with that thinking that Cox got handed a $2.5 million verdict.

The First Amendment applies to everyone but media shield laws are particularly important for journalists when it comes to the protection of sources.

Wednesday,  US Sen. Lindsey Graham addressed reporters, asking whether bloggers should be a consideration as he drafts a bipartisan federal media shield law.  The Department of Justice hasn’t updated its guidelines about how it investigates reporters since the 1970s or ’80s, Graham said, in a Free Times report.

The last time Congress tried to drill down on the blogger issue, in 2009, the question arose of whether journalists are better defined by the act of reporting, or by how they are employed. South Carolina’s state shield law protects those who are engaged in the gathering and dissemination of information to the public — a functional definition which could include bloggers.

Forbes contributor David Coursey wrote regarding the Cox/blogging case, “This is an example of where journalism and pornography are both hard to define, but I know them when I see them.”

And with that, to quote Jonah Goldberg, “Hello Mr. Holder!”