Why Are Bloggers Still Sitting at the Kids' Table? The Popularity of Online News and the Federal Shield Law

Well, it turns out this whole Internet thing is getting pretty popular. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more Americans now get their news from the Internet than from old-fashioned newspapers. While this might just mean that consumers are reading mainstream media content online rather than in print, the Pew report also suggests that social media has its own significant role:

The rise of the internet as a news platform has been an integral part of these changes. This report discusses two significant technological trends that have influence[d] news consumption behavior: First, the advent of social media like social networking sites and blogs has helped the news become a social experience in fresh ways for consumers. People use their social networks and social networking technology to filter, assess, and react to news. Second, the ascent of mobile connectivity via smart phones has turned news gathering and news awareness into an anytime, anywhere affair for a segment of avid news watchers. (Source)

To be sure, it's not as if we've become a nation of citizen journalists.  The report summary makes clear that, unsurprisingly, for most Americans "[p]articipation comes more through sharing than through contributing news themselves."

Still, it strikes me that the Pew findings provide additional support for the argument that bloggers and other non-traditional and amateur journalists should get the same legal protections as the mainstream press, at least when they carry out clearly journalistic functions.  Where this issue most commonly comes up is in the area of state and federal shield laws. 

Shield laws allow journalists to refuse to testify as to the information or sources of information they encounter during the newsgathering process. While many states have shield laws, a federal shield law is still sitting in Congress.

The House version of the bill, adopted in April 2009, excludes many bloggers from its protection, limiting the shield to those who gather or report news "for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain." The Senate version has oscillated, with amateurs getting cut in September 2009 and added back in November in a version that looks to the function of disseminating news to the public rather than pay status. (When the bill passed out of the Senate judiciary committee in December, there was an abortive attempt to take non-professionals out again, but it failed.) 

While this congressional yo-yoing has continued (when will it pass, who will it cover), the need for a shield law that includes non-professional bloggers has been made abundantly clear. A little while ago, I wrote about the TSA’s harassment of two bloggers who dared to post a clearly non-confidential memo on airport screening security directives.  

The argument against extending a shield law to bloggers seems to be rooted in silly notions of traditionalism: the law should apply only to salaried newspapermen because only those individuals are our trusted news gatherers. Supporters of an expansive shield law have instead had to rely on common sense (always a poor position to occupy when it comes to political debate):  Congress should "focus on the function carried out by the individual in question, rather than occupational status."

But lo, now those of us who value bloggers’ rights can now fight fire with fire. Let the numbers recitation begin!

Six in ten Americans (59%) get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day, and the internet is now the third most popular news platform, behind local television news and national television news. . . . Some 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commentary about it, or dissemination of news via social media. They have done at least one of the following: commenting on a news story (25%); posting a link on a social networking site (17%); tagging content (11%), creating their own original news material or opinion piece (9%), or Tweeting about news (3%). (Source

The Internet is where individuals go to learn the news, be it about their social circle, their local municipality, or the wider world.  Even if you want to take a narrow, instrumentalist view, bloggers, amateurs and non-traditional journalists still deserve a seat at the adults' table. There is plenty of room for everyone, so tweet grace and pass the legal protection.

(Andrew Moshirnia is a second year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP Blogger.) 

Public domain photograph courtesy of Wikipedia commons—http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Messy_child.jpg 

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