by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
With all the talk of “fake news” in the news lately, people are starting to look around for guidance on how to judge news worthiness. Some folks are all to happy to supply it, which has led to some homegrown efforts to make sense of news bias and the wildly tossed around accusation of “fake news”. Below is a graphic that recently turned up on the internet to classify news, and quasi-news outlets.
This graphic, which attempts to depict the quality and bias of news media outlets, appeared on Facebook. It may look interesting, but it is really misleading on many levels. The creator of this work is unknown That is enough to dismiss all credibility. Furthermore, nothing is known about what criteria the graph maker used or how vigorously those criteria were applied?
The very premise behind this depiction is flawed as well. The editorial leanings of a news outlet is an independent variable. It isn’t directly related to journalistic accuracy. Accuracy is a less subjective measure than political leanings. It is also objectively measurable, unlike the idea of quality, as the term is used on the Y axis. It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that the Wall Street Journal has biased or poor quality reporting just because it has a conservative editorial board. Some conservative bias is evident in its editorials and also in what it covers or considers newsworthy. But the choice of content is a bias that is present in every news outlet. In fact, the choice and treatment of content are the leading criteria for judging a news site as conservative or liberal. This bias, however, does not render the content false or inaccurate. Any two witnesses of any event will give different accounts. This doesn’t mean they are lying or making it up. It is only when obviously important facts or events are intentionally ignored, as in a news blackout, that the omission becomes an egregious bias error.
There are also sites included above, like The Daily Kos, that aren’t strictly news sites. It has a very left-leaning following for sure. Some of the writing on this site comes from professional journalists, or freelance professionals, but a lot of often accurate reporting comes from non-professional journalists as well. Hybrid information websites like The Daily Kos blur the line between professional journalism and citizen journalism. This blurring of the line between the professional and citizen journalist is happening more broadly as well. Amanda Harper’s article, Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism, is a good primer on this topic.
Why does it matter if a journalist is a professional or not?
The theoretical distinction is sharp, even if the practical distinction is sometime blurry. A profession, any profession, is characterized as a field of employment requiring specialized skills where members abide by a common set of standards and moral principles that are monitored and enforced by peer review and peer pressure. To be a profession there must be an organizational structure to review , refine, promulgate and enforce standards among its members. Being a member of a profession is a broader obligation than being an employee of any particular business or agency. Professionals are obligated to push back against employers or clients who would compromise their professional principles or standards.
So even, if I, as a blogger, hold myself to the same high standards as professional journalists, I am still not a professional journalist. I am not subject to the same journalistic peer review and enforcement procedures. I am not under editorial supervision and I am not under a news agency’s employment. I am merely a citizen journalist. I am on my own.
So is it OK to call myself a citizen journalist? I think so, providing I am aware that there are serious caveats. The question brings up a very tricky point worth exploring. Do “civilian journalists” have the same constitutional protections as other working journalists? Specifically, are bloggers protected by their states shield law?
Shield laws allow the public press limited ability to protect the anonymity of its sources. This protection is a constitutional interpretation of what a “free press” implies. Some form of shield law exists in every state with the exception of Wyoming. If there was not respect for the confidentiality of their sources, journalists could be reduced to law enforcement snitches. That would severely hamper their ability to gather the news. In fact, without this protection the press could not serve as a check on government power. It is because of this freedom that the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Regardless of how you feel about the press, their ability to protect their sources is really the last barricade between the us and government tyranny.
While the courts may show some deference to citizen journalists on a case by case bases, as a class they do not have the same constitutional standing. Specifically, there are currently no shield law to protect a blogger’s sources in the United States. This is partly because they cannot be held to the same high standards as professional journalist who work in a peers group within a recognized news outlet. The editorial supervision and peer milieu help to challenge and reinforce professional standards.
While I may hold myself to the same high standard as professional journalist, you have no reason to believe me. I am not subject to the same peer review and peer pressures. And governments, have some reasons to draw a bright line between professional journalists and current events bloggers. It would cause chaos if every person engaged in shady dealings could simply start a blog and claim journalistic privileges as a way to thwart law enforcement. That said, all of us have significant constitutional protections of free speech, free association and unreasonable searches and seizures. So if I respectfully videotape police publicly arresting someone on the street, for example, I can’t be forced to stop videotaping to to destroy the recording.
On the other hand, if you are a whistle blower and want to assure anonymity you had better talk to a professional journalists. You might first want to check on the shield laws in your state as well.
Given the changing nature of society, the internet and the press, it may be time to rethink ways to strengthen protections for citizen journalist who increasingly provide invaluable news reporting to the more traditional news organizations. As financial constraints continue to shrink the size of news bureaus around the country, citizen journalism have become an increasingly important supplement. Who knows? Maybe in the future citizen journalists might be trained and licensed to establish their integrity. Until then it’s reader beware.