The $2.5 million question

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Oregon judge’s ruling in blogger case clarifies what a journalist is—and isn’t.

The media was in a defensive frenzy when Crystal Cox, a Montana blogger, was fined $2.5 million for defamation in early December.

That is, until they checked out her blogs.

Cox, a self proclaimed “investigative blogger,” proposed many accounts of fraud perpetrated by Kevin Padrick, a lawyer for the investment firm Obsidian Financial Group, in her blogs. Padrick sued Cox for her multiple accusations of the company’s financial corruption which spread over 500 separate URL’s and which now plague Google searches of his name.

In an interview with David Carr of the New York Times, Cox said: “I have a gift for getting on top of search engines and I want to give voice to victims of the corrupt judicial system…The system wants to shut me up and they have been trying to for years.”

With just this information, the backlash to the case is understandable. After all, it brings up the obvious question of free speech—aren’t we all (bloggers and journalists alike) guaranteed free speech by the first amendment regardless of job titles?

Well, yes—barring outright libel.

Although Cox’s website, obsidianfinancesucks.com, has been taken down, it previously reveled in hyperbole and misinformation. It prominently featured a picture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing meant to portray Padrick, which justified Oregon judge Marco Hernandez’s decision to dismiss all but one of Cox’s postings—they were all so excessively ridiculous that a prudent person would have easily been able to distinguish that her assertions are not fact.

So the real question here becomes: how do we determine who and what makes a journalist?

Congress did propose a federal shield law in 2009 that would establish exactly who is entitled to those benefits, but the verdict’s still out on that one. It’s a loaded question that no one feels compelled to tackle, especially with online publication becoming more and more prominent.

On the one hand, increasingly easy access to the internet is enabling more people to share information and get their voices heard.

On the other, not everyone who has internet access is capable of journalistic integrity, which means that fiction can often be mistaken for fact. Case in point, the Crystal Cox case.

The implications of not having a fixed standard for what a journalist is can be scary, because it can lead to citizens like Padrick being unfairly defamed. Judge Hernandez made the ruling based on the fact that because Cox is not employed by a media source, she is not a journalist.

This ruling seems too simple on its own, but not to worry—he offers in his opinion some tried and true ways of spotting a journalist. The criteria he selected mostly center around ethics and judgment, but there are two that stand out. “(1) any education in journalism; [and] (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity,” Hernandez said is what constitutes a journalist.

Number one is a plus, but not always necessary for making a good journalist. But number two is a bust. Judge Hernandez’s determination that not being hired by a media source makes you ineligible to be a journalist seems archaic with the amount of writers online today.

Simply because someone is not hired to investigate a story does not discount their reporting from the get go. And just because someone works for Fox News does not make them a journalist.

We should of course be wary of the Crystal Cox-like bloggers out there, but everyone on the other side of the libel line is protected by the first amendment and should be entitled to the same rights journalists are awarded, so long as they follow journalistic practices.

Maybe the problem is the term “journalist” itself. In determining who is a journalist and who isn’t, perhaps we lose sight of the fact that journalism is just good reporting.

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