Senate Puts Bloggers Back in the Federal Shield Bill

On Friday, Senators Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) released a revised version of the proposed federal shield bill (S. 448), which expands the bill's coverage to bloggers and other amateur journalists publishing on the Internet. This version departs from a previous one, announced in September, which limited protection to "salaried employee[s]" and independent contractors for established news media organizations. The new language reads:

(2) COVERED PERSON.—The term "covered person"—

(A) means a person who—

(i) with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest, regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports or publishes on such matters by—

(I) conducting interviews;
(II) making direct observation of events; or
(III) collecting, reviewing, or analyzing original writings, statements, communications, reports, memoranda, records, transcripts, documents, photographs, recordings, tapes, materials, data, or other information whether in paper, electronic, or other form;

(ii) has such intent at the inception of the process of gathering the news or information sought; and

(iii) obtains the news or information sought in order to disseminate it by means of print (including, but not limited to, newspapers, books, wire services, news agencies, or magazines), broadcasting (including, but not limited to, dissemination through networks, cable, satellite carriers, broadcast stations, or a channel or programming service for any such media), mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means.

As Zachary Seward of Nieman Journalism Lab writes, with the revised version the Senate is "returning to its original definition of a journalist, focused on the craft instead of the business."  We applaud this renewed focus on the function carried out by the individual in question, rather than occupational status.  This approach better accounts for the economic realities and other challenges facing both journalists and journalism as an institution.

Of course, this step forward may not amount to much, seeing as the current House version of the bill (H.R. 985), which passed in March, limits the shield's protection to those who gather news "for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain."  While this language is not as restrictive as the Senate's previous version, it still presents a serious impediment for many bloggers and student journalists, and even some freelancers who don't get paid well.

Ultimately, differences between the House and Senate versions may get ironed out in conference committee, so there is definitely hope that last week's gains will find their way into law. Perhaps the participation of the Obama Administration in the negotiations that led to the current draft will help sway opinion in the House. 

For more coverage, see The New York TimesNieman Journalism Lab, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


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