Oregon Court Rules That Not All Bloggers Are Journalists

December 14, 2011

The ranks of freelance journalists and independent bloggers are growing every day, even as many mainstream daily newspapers continue to lay off editorial staff. So it is increasingly important to the integrity of journalism itself just who is defined legally as a "journalist."

The judge in a controversial Oregon court case ruled November 30, 2011, that blogger Crystal Cox was not a journalist, and therefore not entitled to the protections of that state's shield law. In a ruling almost incidental to the case itself, federal district court Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that because blogger Cox seemingly lacked any conventional journalistic credentials or affiliations, she was not entitled to protect the confidentiality of her sources.

Hernandez based that decision on his finding that Cox was not “affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system” and could present no evidence of having “an education in journalism” or “credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity.”

This raised concerns among journalism groups, because some of the greatest journalists now publish fit that description. Quite a lot of statute and case law today recognizes freelancers and bloggers as journalists.

But New York Times media critic David Carr, who looked into the case, suggested that Cox's published allegations against Kevin Padrick have little or no basis in truth. This complicated matters. Hernandez' ruling arose out of a case in which Padrick sued Cox for defamation. Cox seemed ready to lose the case on the facts, but it was apparently necessary for the court to first consider her status as a defendant, since Cox claimed protections due a journalist under shield and defamation law.

It remains unclear what effect Hernandez' ruling on Cox's status may have on the working legal definition that applies to other journalists.