Are Bloggers the Same as Journalists in Court?

I tend to be cynical when bloggers claim to be journalists. Many of those who claim to be “citizen journalists” are not, in fact, doing the sort of thoughtful, detailed, original research that is the backbone of true journalism. Where I, as a blogger, may feel justified in posting a story based upon a rumor or an anonymous source with questionable reliability, a true journalist would insist on finding reliable, dependable sources for the information s/he prints. I’ve witnessed the difference between good journalism and good blogging.

My theoretical distinction is being destroyed, however, by a race to the middle. “Journalists” publish unsourced speculation, while some bloggers do actual, in-depth, factual investigation. What I consider to be journalism can appear in blogs, and what I consider to be blogging appears regularly in print. Midtown Miscreant’s examination of blight had more journalistic integrity than the emotional drivel published by some people cashing McClatchy checks.

A court in New Jersey is now facing the challenge of deciding whether a blogger is entitled to protect her sources under a Journalist Shield Law. She published some criticism about a software company, and the company has sued her for libel. In the discovery phase of the case, the company has sought to find out who her sources were. She’s refusing, claiming that she should be entitled to protection under the New Jersey shield law.

This is all interesting stuff. Do bloggers have the legal right to withhold identifying information about their anonymous tipsters? Should journalists be entitled to greater rights than bloggers when they are publishing material that does not meet the traditional standards of journalistic integrity?

More globally, in a world where good journalism is showing up on blogs and crappy bias is being published in newspapers, how do we decide what qualifies as real journalism? And if the courts find that to be a tough issue, how will the average citizen handle it? Does the medium matter more than the substance?

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