Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Are bloggers journalists? A Douglas College expert weighs in

Claudia Cornwall
By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

A blogger in the U.S. was recently ordered to pay $2.5 million in damages to an investment firm over blog posts that criticized the organization and one of its co-founders. The blogger, Crystal Cox, said her posts were based on information from an outside source, and refused to reveal that source. Cox, who calls herslef an investigative blogger, cited Oregon’s shield law, which allows journalists to protect their sources.

The judge ruled that as a blogger, Cox was not a journalist, and could therefore not claim the protections offered to traditional journalists.

Was that a fair ruling?

Claudia Cornwall, a Douglas College Print Futures: Professional Writing Instructor who teaches a course on legal and ethical issues, thinks bloggers should have the same type of journalistic protection reserved for traditional reporters and other members of the media.

“It would seem reasonable to me,” Cornwall says, “but this is America, and Americans are much more apt to protect free speech than in Canada. Here, what’s more important is a fair trial.”

“Media law probably needs to be updated,” she adds. “American law is really framed with the traditional journalist in mind, so they need to take into account this whole new class of journalists.”

But Cornwall points out that the real issue in this case wasn’t whether the blogger was a journalist, but that she was defending herself in a libel case.

“If you’re sued for libel, you can’t use shield laws. It would make it too easy for people to say whatever they wanted. The court said, sensibly, that we shouldn’t give journalists carte blanche, because it’s difficult to tell who’s a journalist and who isn’t. So I think it was a reasonable decision.”

Cornwall says bloggers who want to avoid libel suits should take precautions, such as using more than one source in a post, getting sources to corroborate information and giving a person or organization being criticized the chance to respond. And if the wounded party asks the blogger to cease and desist, the blogger should consider doing just that.

“These are just sensible rules,” Cornwall says.

Claudia Cornwall is the author of At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang’s Vancouver, published in October. Learn more about her on her website.