A federal judge in Oregon has ruled that a blogger could not receive protections granted to mainstream journalists because she was not affiliated with a mainstream media outlet.
While the ruling does have implications for citizen journalists and bloggers, the heart of the case revolved around defamation – a claim that isn’t protected by shield laws and that doesn’t make a distinction on the writer’s status.
To me, those folks who focus on the question of whether a blogger is legally a journalist are missing the point. The point is: Were the blogger’s reports true or false? In this case, a man’s reputation was damaged and the blogger appeared to have made no effort to prove her statements. This amounts to reckless disregard for the truth.
Here’s a little bit of the history: Kevin Padrick, an Oregon attorney involved in a bankruptcy case, sued Montana blogger Cynthia Cox for defamation after she called him a “thug” and a “thief” in her blog.
U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Cox was not a journalist because she had no professional qualifications as a journalist and did not work for a legitimate news outlet. She did not have a journalism education or credentials, and failed to provide evidence she produced an independent product, tried to get both sides of the story or adhered to journalistic standards such as checking her facts.
Because she was not a journalist under the law, the judge ruled she could not claim protections, such as the shield law, granted to mainstream media. But the judge also noted that the shield law does not apply to civil actions for defamation.
Here’s where Cox went wrong. She disregarded the issue of libel, which is defamation or injury to someone’s personal reputation and good name. It’s an issue that should be taken very seriously by every individual, but especially by journalists – whether they are members of the mainstream media, bloggers or citizen journalists.
Cox’s allegations that Padrick was a “thug” and a “thief” who “committed tax fraud” were never proven, according to a piece written by The New York Times’ David Carr.
That means Cox published the defamatory statements in her blog with reckless disregard for the truth or actual malice, which is probably what opened the door for a jury on Nov. 29 to award $2.5 million in the case.
There’s a good lesson to be learned here for all journalists, but especially citizen journalists and bloggers, who don’t deal with libel on a regular basis. Be careful in your reporting and word use. Avoid labeling someone in a way that his or her reputation could be damaged. Finally, don’t disregard the truth or write with malice.
Susan Cormier is the co-author of the “Handbook for Citizen Journalists” (http://www.citizenjournalistnow.com/)