When is a journalist not a journalist?

A recent article in The Register (UK) disclosed that the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge (actually his surname, not an affectation; you can’t make this stuff up!) has allowed the use of Twitter in courtrooms by journalists without the need for permission, and by non-journalists as permitted by the judge.

The obvious question becomes, “What is a journalist?”

Consider the case of Crystal Cox, a blogger from Montana (US), sued for defamation in her reporting of an attorney’s handling of a particular bankruptcy case. Her defense – that she was a journalist and thereby protected – was thrown out when the judge in her own case decided that a blogger is ~not necessarily~ a journalist.

According to a Boston Globe article (12/8/2011), “Hernandez said Cox was not a journalist because she offered no professional qualifications as a journalist or legitimate news outlet. She had no journalism education, credentials, or affiliation with a recognized news outlet, proof of adhering to journalistic standards such as editing or checking her facts, evidence she produced an independent product, or evidence she ever tried to get both sides of the story.”

Nevertheless Ms. Cox was and is a prominent, well-known and well-followed blogger in her own right (www.crystalcox.com). And of course we must also consider the case of Julian Assange, about whom the media are split into so many camps it’s hard to know which way the wind blows. Salon says he IS a journalist, US News & World Report (and let’s not forget the US Departments of State and Justice) say he’s NOT a journalist, and numerous reporters (among them former NY Times reporter Judy Miller) says he’s a BAD journalist.

Journalism, like many fields, is both blessed and cursed by having no fixed, official and universally accepted standard of inclusion. It is therefore always open to interpretation. When a judge rules, as did Mr. Hernandez, in a particularly narrow way, it temporarily tilts the balance in that direction. But the preponderance of evidence in support of an alternative view will usually cause it to win out in the end, after much wrangling in the courts and in the press itself.

The current battle is anything but won. At least the Lord Chief Justice, if he errs at all, errs on the side of openness. While tweeting can hardly be considered a substitute for reporting, it at least opens the door for persons who are actually observing with their own eyes and ears what is going on in a courtroom to let others know what they are witnessing. Taken with a grain of salt, that seems like a good thing.

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