Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Who Is A Journalist?

There has been a lot of debate lately over what, if anything, differentiates journalists from bloggers. Some, noting that journalism and blogging overlap quite a bit, say there is no distinction-- that bloggers are amateur journalists. Others argue that people who write news articles for a living are journalists, but amateurs are not. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but it is starting to be important because many state laws protect bona fide journalists from having to disclose their sources. Three bloggers are currently being subpoenaed by Apple Computer, which wants them to be forced to disclose their sources for some leaked confidential information. So how do we decide who is a journalist, qualifying for source protection, and who is not?

I'd like to make an analogy with medicine. Lots of everyday people engage in what might be loosely called "the practice of medicine," even though we require a license to practice medicine. Am I practicing medicine if I recommend that my friend give an antihistamine instead of a decongestant to her daughter with a runny nose? Am I practicing medicine if I give someone herbs or supplements for a specific ailment? Am I practicing medicine if I perform basic first aid on an injured person? Most people agree that these are not instances of practicing medicine and are not subject to regulation and licensure. For those who do practice medicine, we have licensure requirements. The requirements vary from state to state but usually are not terribly taxing (at least, not compared to going to med school). Some states also license herbal and homeopathic practitioners. In return for proof of training and subscription to a code of ethics, people are allowed to practice medicine legally.

Maybe we ought to license journalists as well. Perhaps a licensed journalist could take an ethical oath similar to the Hippocratic oath, pay a licensing fee annually, and receive the rights that journalists have to conceal their sources. You wouldn't have to be a paid journalist to qualify as a journalist, and those who are concerned with ethical standards in journalism can make sure there is some sort of ethical oath as part of licensure. Anyone can have a blog, of course, and say whatever they want on it; but only licensed journalists would be allowed to conceal their sources. In regard to election campaigning, we could require licensed journalists to declare their support for a candidate as an in-kind contribution, but not require it of unlicensed journalists.

What do you readers think?