Drawing the Line Between Bloggers & Journalists


This post isn't so much about tea, but gave me something to think about as I enjoyed a cuppa (Vanilla Caramel Chai from 52Teas) this morning.

To summarize, a blogger named Crystal Cox was sued to the tune of $2.5M for libel. She began representing herself on the basis that she was a journalist and therefore protected by the Shield Law, which gives journalists the right to protect confidential sources.

The judge disagreed, calling her a blogger instead. He stated that there was no proof that she was in fact a journalist - she wasn't representing a news agency at the time, nor does she have credentials or even journalism schooling.

Cox - who is now joined by the UCLA Law School in her defense - is appealing.

As many of my readers know, I am a former journalist. I've been writing for publication since I was 16 years old. My first story in a major newspaper was during my junior year of high school. I actually kept the little clipping in which my local newspaper, The Gazette (Mount Airy), was seeking interns. (My mom circled it for me and I remember thinking, this is it! My chance!) I started interning there and met the wonderful Carol Blackburn, who remained my mentor through college and eventually became my boss when I started working for The Gazette after graduating. Anyone who knew me in high school knew I wanted to write. Creative writing is my forte, but I developed a deep love for journalism too. (And yes I kept them separate, I'm no Jayson Blair nor Stephen Glass!)

I chose my alma mater, Hood College, for one reason - Aldan Weinberg. I knew his name long before I ever even heard of Hood College. I knew I wanted to attend his classes.

Once in college, I kept writing. I followed Weinberg's philosophy of writing as often as possible. I quickly built up a portfolio. Then I started getting PAID for stories and that was it. I was following my dream and my heart.

After I graduated, I took a cross-country trip with my father. The goal? To get an entry-level position at a newspaper somewhere in the Mid-West. The problem? They just weren't hiring. I kept in touch with Carol Blackburn, though. I remember the day she called me in for an interview. The Mount Airy beat reporter was leaving and there was an opening at the same newspaper where I began my journey a few years earlier. Within a week I was there.

I loved that little paper, but reality sunk in after a few years - there isn't much pay. And I devoted much of my time to the paper, leaving very little time for creative writing. My creative writing professor, Dr. Amy Gottfried, had told me she really believed I was going to make it as a novelist. But I didn't have any time! Plus the community newspaper was changing into...something else, once under a new editor. Now that office isn't even open and there is no Mount Airy Gazette. I applied for a government job and have been there since.

But I will always be a journalist. It's what I'm trained to do. (And I have the student loans to prove it!)

Bloggers are simply NOT journalists. Why? It's simple - they have the liberty to write about everything and anything, and don't even need to quote sources. Journalists are held to a different standard - and should be. We have the experience, background and education to know that every good story needs at least two different sources. We have to quote people accurately or else they'll get upset (and rightly so). And sometimes we need to use confidential sources for the greater good: getting info out to people who need to know.

I used confidential sources myself on various occasions. Usually I would talk to the source first and then find ways to get the info from other sources on the record.

I still use this philosophy here, at Keen Tea Thyme. Sometimes my features only have one source - like the CelebriTEA features. But I still follow the same ethical standards I developed as a journalist. What you see here is the truth - and I can prove it.

Cox isn't a journalist. She can blog about whatever she wants - but there are consequences, as there should be. Libel is a very real scenario for irresponsible bloggers, as it is for irresponsible journalists. The only difference? Journalists have the backing of their news agency's legal department, their editor(s) and the public - as long as they are reporting the truth, and can prove it.

But where should the line be drawn?


1 comment:

  1. This topic is complex and it would be hard to sum up how I feel about it in a single box.

    I do think that the original intentions of the laws in Oregon to protect journalists would probably have been intended to include bloggers and others. But even with these protections, neither journalists nor bloggers are immune to libel or slander issues.

    I have read Cox's original post, and it strikes me as highly inflammatory. She concludes the post by concluding that a specific individual "is a thug and a thief". The tone of the article is extremely negative and reads more like a rant or a personal attack than a work of journalism. And because of this, it seems to be more out to harm than to heal.

    These issues are not strictly a question of taste either...they have legal ramifications. In order for something to be defamation, it usually needs to be both false and malicious.

    By making personal attacks, a blogger like Cox not only makes herself look bad, but also opens her up to legal exposure.

    That said, I think the $2.5M amount involved here seems highly excessive and out of proportion. It seems very hard to suggest that a blog post like that one of Cox's (which I would frankly dismiss as a rant and not give any credibility to whatsoever) could actually cause that amount of damages. If I were a judge, the fact that the lawyer even asked for an amount so large would make me unlikely to take them seriously.

    Like I said, it's complex. I suspect this is one of those situations where all parties involved are out of line.