Who Is A Journalist?

by Mary Turck, editor, Twin Cities Daily Planet

Who is a journalist? And does the government get to answer this question?

Minnesota restrictions on freedom of the press surfaced early in the 2009 legislative session, as the MN House of Representatives first tried to say that on-line journalists are not “real” journalists, and then backed down — sort of.

The proverbial substance hit the fan when the House threw out video reporters for on-line media, barring them from committee hearings and saying that on-line media were not entitled to press credentials.

One legislator objected that recognizing on-line media would mean that “www.anybody.com” could claim they were journalists and report on what legislators are doing. Others objected that people with video cameras might “target an individual legislator.” (Have you ever heard of such a thing? Imagine – a journalist deciding to target a politician!)

The whole episode highlights a basic problem with press credentials or accreditation. The process allows a government body to decide who is a journalist and to grant or withhold protection or access.

Any decision that bars on-line journalists or independent journalists as a class is an abuse of government power and an infringement on freedom of the press. And — this should be obvious — any government decision on accreditation that is based on the substance or style of reporting violates the First Amendment. The point of freedom of the press is that the press is free to criticize.

Lack of space has also been raised as reasons for limiting credentials. Again, it is not the business of the government to grant preference to some journalists over others. If, indeed, there are a hundred journalists who all want access to the floor at the same time, there are other remedies available: pool coverage, for example, or a lottery for space on a given day, or admitting the first journalists in line. Space is NOT a reason for granting access to some journalists and denying it to others.

The objection that on-line journalists are not “real” journalists is nonsense. If anyone needs a demonstration that on-line and independent journalists ARE journalists they need look no further than the gavel-to-gavel recount coverage by The Uptake, or the daily, consistent news coverage of the community provided by the Minnesota Independent and the Twin Cities Daily Planet and MinnPost.

On-line journalists — and even www.anybody.com — must be free to report on the shenanigans on Capitol Hill. That’s the whole point of the First Amendment.

One Comment on “Who Is A Journalist?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly Mary. On the issue of access, I think pool coverage would be the answer—allow any video journalists access to a video feed from the committee hearing rooms. And for those wishing for more unfettered access to legislators for questions, etc., a lottery or first come-first serve system.

    This issue is more about the practice of journalism and less about the labels we put on people. Videographer, blogger, editor, reporter, podcaster, talk show host, citizen journalist, etc.—if we’re practicing the craft of journalism we should be allowed some form of access. Granted, if 1000 of us show up to cover the same event, there will understandably be some give and take, but the government should not be in the business of deciding who is a journalist.

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