Law Defining Journalists

Who’s who in the age of digital media?

Authored by: Jane Johnston , Anne Wallace

The Routledge Handbook of Developments in Digital Journalism Studies

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138283053
eBook ISBN: 9781315270449
Adobe ISBN:


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Like journalism, the law is a profession built around language. This chapter focuses on one critical example of how legal institutions and lawmakers globally are grappling with language as they quite literally redefine the terms ‘journalist’, ‘journalism’ and ‘news media’. Where, not so long ago, journalists, and undoubtedly members of the public, could confidently assert “we all know what a journalist is, and it’s silliness to argue about it” (cited in Ugland and Henderson, 2007: 242), few journalists would argue this today. Certainly, the legal profession has moved beyond any simple understanding. Instead, as the New Zealand Law Commission (NZLC) has pointed out, law and policymakers (including judges, politicians, and public administrators) are being challenged to adequately and fairly summarize journalism and news media positioned within a “digital ecosystem [in which] there is a growing symbiosis between new and old media” (Law Commission, 2013: 54). As it explains (2013: 29):

In the pre-digital era identifying the target of media regulation and determining the boundaries of intervention were relatively straightforward matters. However, determining what to regulate and how to calibrate, target, and enforce that regulation has now become far more complex as bright line distinctions … become increasingly blurred.

Within its remit, the NZLC was tasked with determining how to define ‘news media’ for the purposes of the law. Other countries, including Australia, Canada, the United States, and Britain, have also been compelled to face the questions of who and what should be afforded privilege and responsibilities once provided to the more predictable institutions in newspaper, radio, television, and other ‘mainstream’ news media and their employees. The complexity of determining clearly worded definitions and the rifts that have resulted are highlighted in the debate that surrounded the Free Flow of Information Act (2013) in the United States, which sought to ensure journalism’s claim to a free flow of information within federal law. This debate provides an example of the deep division surrounding the definition and its impact on the legal process. Central to the division is whether bloggers and new media users – as one scholar writes, “bloggers, dilettantes, and do-it-yourselfers” (Ugland and Henderson, 2007: 241) – should be part of the definition; whether “A-list” (Singer, 2007: 80) bloggers might be included; or, whether definitions should be limited to those who are in employed or paid work within a recognized media organization, have completed media training, and adhere to a professional code of ethics.

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