New Zealand’s highest court: Anyone can be a journalist, and that includes bloggers

To some veteran bloggers, the debate over whether they should be thought of as journalists may seem like an issue that was settled a long time ago. But in legal terms, that discussion is far from over, as courts in a number of countries continue to grapple with the idea that journalism is no longer something done by members of a specific profession who work for specific media outlets.

The latest to arrive at a conclusion on this question is New Zealand, where a recent High Court decision found that yes, bloggers can be considered journalists for the purposes of the country’s defamation laws, and therefore are entitled to certain protections that are applied to journalists.

As an article at The Conversation describes, the case in question stemmed from a lawsuit against blogger Cameron Slater, who wrote what businessman Matthew Blomfield argued were defamatory statements — including allegations of theft, fraud, bribery, drug dealing and pornography. A lower court said Slater wasn’t a journalist and therefore could not refuse to reveal his sources.

News comes from blogs now too

The blogger appealed the original decision, arguing that he was practising journalism despite not being affiliated with a mainstream media entity, and making the point that the country’s laws did not specify that journalists had to work for specific news organizations, only that they be “engaged in journalism.” Justice Raynor Asher agreed, saying in his decision:

The definition [of who is a journalist] does not impose quality requirements and does not require the dissemination of news to be in a particular format. Slater’s reports contain genuine new information of interest over a wide range of topics… while criticisms can be made of Mr Slater’s style and modus operandi, Whale Oil is not of such low quality that it is not reporting news.

The New Zealand decision comes on the heels of a number of similar rulings and commentary in courts in the U.S. and elsewhere — and as The Conversation notes, the High Court judge specifically referred to some of these other cases in his decision.

Earlier this year, an appeals court in Florida also decided that a blogger was committing acts of journalism and therefore should be entitled to certain protections under U.S. defamation law (including the right to be notified at least five days in advance of a lawsuit). As the judge in that case noted:

The advent of the internet as a medium and the emergence of the blog as a means of free dissemination of news and public comment have been transformative… the impact of blogs has been so great that even terms traditionally well defined and understood in journalism are changing as journalists increasingly employ the tools and techniques of bloggers – and vice versa

The First Amendment applies to everyone

Also this year, an appeals court overturned a lower-court decision that found blogger Crystal Cox was not entitled to the protections that a journalist would be, because the defense failed to show that she was “affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network.”

The appeals court reversed the decision, however, saying the First Amendment protects acts of journalism or publishing — not acts by individuals who are associated with specific media outlets. Even though Cox’s methods were criticized by many journalists as being beneath the use of that term, the court said:

The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable.

In that sense, the New Zealand case is another link in a chain of legal rulings that help establish the idea that bloggers — and other members of what Harvard’s Yochai Benkler has called “the networked fourth estate,” including entities like Wikileaks — can be seen as performing acts of journalism, given the right circumstances. As journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have argued, we need to protect acts of journalism, not just specific actors who engage in them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / sculder19