Thursday, April 05, 2007

'Blog Law' Makes Upholding Ethics Bleak For Bloggers

How could I discuss the balance between citizen journalism and classic journalism without mentioning Joshua Wolf?

For those of you who haven't been up on the news, Wolf is a 24-year-old freelancer and video blogger who spent a "record-setting" 226 days in jail for refusing to turn over his footage of a 2005 street protest to authorities. He was recently released after cutting a deal to turn over the footage.

Wolf's time surpassed the previous record set by Vanessa Leggett, a freelancer from Houston who served 168 days in 2001 and 2002 for refusing to reveal unpublished material about a murder case.

Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure most journalism students aren't thinking, "hey, I'd love to be an example for why the law and journalism ethics are at odds" when they read this story.

And who says Wolf's a journalist? After all, isn't he a blogger?

Is there a difference? Does it matter, especially in the eyes of the law?

When journalism ethics and the law collide, the perceived line between being a "real journalist" freelancer and being a "citizen journalist blogger" fades: both, it seems, are equally susceptible to the law. Each's accrued time means that they're more likely to get hit harder for longer than someone backed by a company or "mainstream media." And as a freelancer - blogger or not - neither one has the same leverage as a journalist with a masthead.

And we all know how well journalists under mastheads are impervious to the threat of legal wrangling in this age.

So what to do in an era where the ethics of journalism combat those of the law? What role exactly does the First Amendment play in the new millenium?

Not a strong one, apparently. Because even if you disagree with Wolf's actions - he did sell some footage to San Francisco TV stations and put some on his web site - you can at least recognize that the Fourth Estate is especially threatened by at least one of the other three.

But what about those bloggers? Those citizen reporters with conviction? Just last week, I was contacted by American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) reporter Tiffany Hsu, who wanted to know a whole lot about "blogging law."

"Blogging" law? Does such a thing exist? Apparently not yet, says Hsu's error-ridden article, but who knows. The National Writer's Union can say all they want that Wolf should never have been jailed, but the bottom line is he was. For two-thirds of a year.

Can journalism ethics be upheld without the legal power of a backing corporation? On only the principle of the law?

I don't know. But it looks pretty bleak for bloggers.

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