Friday, April 09, 2010

The triple threat to citizen journalists

The protections customarily afforded the press typically don’t exist for the citizen journalists supposed to fill the gap created by the contraction of the mainstream media.

This big and gnarly problem – which suggests no easy solution – merits some serious attention from the journalism community for two reasons:

Reason No. 1 is that our democracy benefits from the scrutiny of a vigorous and unfettered press. That, in and of itself, is well worth championing.

Reason No. 2 is rooted in pure self-interest: A decline in the protection of one class of journalists could lead to a decline to the protection of all journalists.

While the modern digital media make it incredibly easy for anyone to try his hand at journalism, bloggers, freelance photographers, Huffington Post contributors and individuals who write for citizen-generated news ventures operate at a distinct disadvantage to journalists employed by recognized news organizations.

The most obvious disadvantage is that self-appointed journalists work for something between a pittance and nothing. But they also lack three things that make life easier for journalists working for a recognized news organization: Libel protection, press credentials and shield laws that prohibit prosecutors from tossing reporters into jail until they reveal confidential sources of information.

Although citizen journalists seldom think about the triple threats they face, they actually run major financial and legal risks.

Independent journalists court financial ruin by not carrying libel insurance that would provide them with legal protection in the event they were sued for libel – and would help pay the damages if they happened to lose. Most citizen journalists are so strapped that they wouldn’t even think about shopping for libel insurance.

If they did, they would learn that $1 million of libel coverage from a major national carrier would cost between $2,000 and $3,000 per year, with the journalist being obliged to pay a $10,000 deductible before any insurance coverage kicked in. A company called Publiability.Com offers the same amount of coverage for under $1,000 annually, with a $5,000 deductible.

In all cases, insurance rates depend on the subjects you cover, whether you make money on your site and several other factors. Because insurance underwriters look closely at the work of each individual applicant for libel insurance, not everyone who is willing to pay is offered coverage.

The other two problems – lack of press credentials and lack of shield protection – stare me in the face every week in my class at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

For want of a press pass, one of my students, Jake Schoneker, was arrested last month when he was covering a group of demonstrators who blocked a freeway while protesting tuition increases at the university.

Because student and citizen journalists in these parts can’t get official press cards from the Highway Patrol or local police agencies, “the only press credentials I had to offer were a business card and a student ID,” wrote Schoneker, who spent a night trying to sleep next to a communal toilet in a filthy jail cell.

“In the eyes of a cop trying to resolve a chaotic situation, it’s easy to see how someone like me could be swept up in the process of making arrests,” he continued. “But people like me — young, under-resourced, and underpaid (if we’re lucky enough to be paid at all) — represent the future of journalism. It’s no longer the size of your camera that counts.”

The reminder of the third peril to independent journalists is Josh Wolf, a student who spent a record 226 days in federal prison for refusing to give un-aired videotapes to a determined prosecutor.

Had Wolf been hauled into a California court instead of a federal tribunal, he could have argued that the state’s press shield law protected him from having to turn over his unpublished product to prosecutors. But there is no federal shield law and no such laws exist in 14 of the 50 states (list here).

Even if Wolf’s case had come before a court in many of the states that do have shield laws, a prosecutor might have argued that the law did not apply to the independent journalist because he was not an employee of a recognized news organization.

In fact, the issue of determining who qualifies as a journalist is the primary factor holding up passage of a long-sought and long-overdue federal shield law for reporters. Although the House last year passed one version of a federal shield law and a Senate committee approved a similar measure shortly before Christmas, action on the bill has been blocked by two senators who want to narrowly construe who is considered to be a journalist.

Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are holding up the vote because they want the bill to cover only individuals who have demonstrated some sort of “track record” as a journalist, said Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom Press, one of more than 80 organizations pushing for passage of a federal shield law.

Because Durbin and Feinstein have not spelled out the standards they are seeking, it is not clear whether a person claiming protection as an independent journalist will be required to demonstrate some sort of previous professional background, a prior body of work or evidence of formerly having being paid for her efforts.

Would I qualify as a journalist in the eyes of the new law? Would you? At this writing, there is no way of knowing.

Put all the risks together, and it’s pretty scary to be an independent journalist. If everyone understood the danger, how many people would do it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very sad state of affairs when ordinary citizens are given less first amendment rights than journalists!

I fully support citizen journalism, however, I've lately developed some concerns about false representation in citizen journalism.

False representation, meaning the "citizen journalist" is actually a politician seeking to spread propaganda -- NOT an everyday citizen wanting to promote the exchange of ideas. I don't have a problem with propaganda, only when people lie about who they really are to the general public, lie about their intentions and lie about their publication being a valid news source. Look in your home state, I'm sure you'll find several online news sources just like this. They're everywhere.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Hopkins said...

The availability of insurance to cover lawsuits -- whether about libel or other complaints -- is a huge deal for self-employed journalists like me.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Racoon said...

Not surprised to read Mr. Durbin is holding out a veiled threat in return for a federal shield law, but I am surprised to read Ms. Feinstein is.

Are they planning to *license* journalists - and make them subject to losing their license for malpractice?

George Orwell is turning over in his grave....

6:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So it seems that all we can do is go on, gamble, and see if we get sued!

1:18 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

It's a chilling portrayal, and one that really only occurred to me when, as a volunteer for a local citizen-run newspaper, I found myself poring over public records for a story that threatened to become controversial. I suddenly realized how exposed I was. And I freely admit that it shortened my investigation and reduced my enthusiasm to pursue stories of consequence in the future.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Elaine said...

I would disagree about the status of the Huffington Post. It has reporters in White House briefings, does original reporting and breaks news. The pay is probably terrible, but HP has become a credible news gathering organization and is provided press credentials.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

Alan - this is a great post and points out the important role of public policy in shaping and fostering the future of journalism. It's vital that we acknowledge that government's role in journalism is about a lot more than just subsidies, and that we encourage journalists to get involved in the policy debates like those you describe here.

At a panel last week, hosted by the great Online Media Law Network at Harvard, I was on a panel addressing just these issues. The post I just did today over at SaveTheNews ( grew out of that discussion. It offers a few ways people can get involved to help respond to the challenges you outline in your post.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well now this post got my attention! I am not a journalist nor do I write very controversial blogs, but I wrongly assumed I had similar protections. As a podcaster and blogger I am very careful and mindful of creating a situation that would cause someone to take legal action. Having said that anyone can file a lawsuit regardless of merit! By the time you pay for a lawyer and go through the process to defend yourself it could bankrupt you financially. I have incorporated which helps limit any liability to the company, but if I were to commit “gross negligence” I could still be held personally responsible.

So I did some digging for liability insurance and found a few interesting sites. I have not used any of these groups in fact I would be interested to know if any of you have some experience with their services.

The first one is The Media Bloggers Association ( – They are a non-profit organization “dedicated to promoting, protecting and educating its members; supporting the development of blogging or citizen journalism.”

According to their site members get a discount on blogging insurance. I believe the policy is underwritten by AXIS PRO, ( a company that specializes in media/professional insurance. Again I don’t know very much about Axis either.

I am evaluating purchasing insurance if the premium isn’t too expensive and am interested to learn how others are going about liability protection.


9:56 AM  
Blogger New York City Writing said...

My name is Adam Chadwick. I am a former New York Times employee, who, unfortunately was part of the lay-offs in the newsroom this past December with the company. For the past year I have been working on an independent documentary film about the U.S. newspaper titled "Fit to Print".

The film focuses on a broad number of issues facing our current newspaper industry crisis and the large transition within general reporting these days and the threats grassroots and independent bloggers and journalists face with libel suits. As part of the film I am spotlighting various libel suit cases and would love to find a case previously or currently happening against bloggers or reporters. If anyone has any recommendation, I would love to hear from you.

To find out more on the project, we have a website (under construction) at with a teaser trailer and complete synopsis for the project.


4:33 PM  

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