Are Bloggers Journalists?

An Oregon court says no

Crystal Cox, a self-described “investigative” blogger, was sued for defamation by investment firm Obsidian Finance Group after she posted numerous negative comments about the company and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Cox argued that calling Padrick a “thug” and a “liar” on her blog was protected under Oregon’s shield law – which allows journalists to keep their sources secret – because she obtained the information from a confidential source.

The judge disagreed, and awarded Obsidian $2.5 million in damages:

Although the defendant is a self-proclaimed ‘investigative blogger’ and defines herself as ‘media,’ the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law.

Although this case is not exactly a textbook use of the shield law, it does spotlight the very interesting issue of exactly what constitutes a “journalist,” especially when anyone can broadcast “news” from their phone or home computer. Is the answer found in what the blogger writes, or is it determined by her journalistic training and affiliations? Does the need to protect confidential sources in order to uncover wrongdoing really apply to anyone who conveys information? Or should it be limited to members of the fourth estate, whose job and training is to keep the public informed?

From a legal perspective, the more relevant question is not the protection of sources, but the ability of a single person to effortlessly clog Google search results with so much negative information about an individual or business that it causes serious financial and emotional harm. While defamation law is alive and well, the barriers to entry for a would-be slanderer are very low in the digital age, leading many bloggers to believe that they can say whatever they want about anyone. Verdicts like this one help send a message that – Internet or not – the justice system can and will hold any speaker accountable for defamatory remarks.

Posted: 12/15/2011 11:01:47 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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