Saturday, June 23rd 2018
 

When is a Reporter Just a Blogger?

Is this piece you’re reading an article? Am I reporter when I tell you the story of a blogger in New Jersey who is not protected by her state’s Shield Law? Or is this merely a diary, journal, or opinion piece, regardless of how well my facts have been checked or how rigorous the standards are to which I personally adhere? These are the types of questions recently raised by a lawsuit in New Jersey, one which clearly stated that bloggers do not have the same legal protections as “legitimate” journalists.

Shelle Hale is a blogger based out of Washington State who was writing an expose on Too Much Media (TMM), a company specializing in software used in the pornography industry. While preparing her piece, Hale received information that TMM had participated in “illegal and unethical use of technology” by profiting off of the theft of customer’s e-mail addresses. She posted this information on a public message board on another web site, along with her assertions that TMM employees “may threaten your life if you report any of the specifics.” Hale was accusing Too Much Media of serious security breaches and of criminal menacing when it came to keeping their misdeeds secret.  TMM responded to these claims with a lawsuit for defamation. As the company attempted to depose Hale, she claimed protection under the Shield Law, so she would not have to identify her sources.

This may be a good time to explain the Shield Law. These are laws that vary by state, but are in place to protect both reporters and their confidential informants. They allow the reporter to refuse to identify their source while under oath. These laws are designed to encourage people to come forward with incriminating information without having to risk their jobs or lives by having their identities revealed. Hale claims that despite the fact that her work wasn’t intended for the Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post, she was researching and reporting on alleged crimes and misdeeds in an effort to inform and protect the public. She set up a public website, pornafia.com, hired writers and informed Washington’s Attorney General of her investigation. Her attorney argued that these laws designed to protect affiliated journalists should be extended to reporters working within the blogosphere.

Unfortunately for both the casual and professional blogger, the judges felt that these protections did not extend to her. They felt that Hale did not adhere to the rigorous standards practiced by the more traditional journalists. She “exhibited none of the recognized qualities or characteristics traditionally associated with the news process, nor has she demonstrated an established connection or affiliation with any news entity.” Although the court mentioned a lack of affiliation, they made a point of stressing that the main reason for their judgment was Hale’s lack of adherence to standards the court felt was critical for a professional journalist. She took no notes, never identified herself as a journalist, did no fact-checking and never went to TMM for comment or rebuttal on any of the claims made against them.

It seems to me that Hale’s professional sloppiness in these areas was the major reason for the court’s decision against her. Unfortunately for her, the ruling that she is not a journalist opens her up to a slander and defamation suit since malice is only a requirement in cases involving reporters and their publications. This case should serve as a warning to all amateur bloggers and reporters on the internet; take good notes, get both sides, and be ready to argue this case again if need be.

Posted by Becky on May 26, 2010 at 4:39pm.

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