Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) stated in 2013 that the ‘shield law’ should only protect ‘real journalists’and their sources. In an amendment put forward by Senator Feinstein, ‘real journalists’ are defined as reporters for mainstream outlets which excludes bloggers and citizen journalists. This leads me to question if this is a justified definition of journalists.
Throughout history, there have been many journalists prosecuted or arrested for not handing over names of sources and information they gathered while reporting. The proposed ‘shield law’ or the Free Flow of Information Act protects journalists from revealing their sources or documents from the threat of federal prosecution. The Society of Professional Journalists states, “Under the proposed law, the federal government must prove to a judge that the information sought outweighs the journalist’s need to keep confidential information.”
This brings me back to the question of what’s the definition of a journalist. In journalism classes, we are taught that a journalist is an individual who takes on the responsibility of being the fourth estate and reports fairly and accurately. This definition does not touch on the argument of mainstream v.s. independent v.s citizen journalist.
In today’s changing digital space, I believe that there is no standard definition of a journalist. My definition of a journalist, synthesized from my studies, is an individual who objectively covers a story for the benefit of the people. It doesn’t matter if this individual is reporting for CNN, Talking Point Memo or just on their own. They have taken on the responsibility to serve the people with important information.
If Senator Feinstein and those that support her claims believe that a journalist is only someone who reports for a mainstream outlet, one wonders if they are aware of the content that citizen journalists have produced. Citizen journalists have covered the Arab Springs and reported on Occupy Wall Street before many news outlets picked up the story. No mainstream outlet was approving their content and it is important to note that mainstream outlets did pick up some of their coverage. If anything, these journalists are individuals who report more honestly and fairly.
Regardless of education or employment, all journalists should be protected by the ‘shield law’. Without the passage of this law, many innocent journalists who believe it is their job to be the fourth estate might end up prosecuted or in jail.