You can’t practice medicine or the law without a license. If you set up shop as a phony doctor or lawyer and the authorities catch you, a prison term and a substantial monetary fine may be imposed upon you.
But anyone can call himself a journalist — no college or university degree, no special training and no state license are required.
Writers and editors who work for a major media firm in the print, broadcast or Internet sectors, should have no trouble establishing their credentials as journalists for legal purposes.
But independent purveyors of news and/or opinion — bloggers, newsletter publishers and e-book authors, for example — may not be given legal standing as journalists. If they are not recognized by the state as journalists, they cannot be protected by the so-called journalist shield laws.
A significant such case decided in 2011 illustrates the point. A U.S. District Court judge in Portland, Ore., denied protection under the state’s journalist shield law to a blogger sued for defamation. The blogger had posted accusations of fraud against a finance group and its co-founder. The judge ruled that the blogger did not qualify as a journalist and the blogger was hit with a $2.5 million judgement.
Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia, as of late August 2013, have journalist shield laws. Wyoming is the only hold out. Specifics of the law and its various protections for journalists vary from state to state, but they all have one aspect in common: Journalists are exempt from the legal requirement, if ordered by a court, to disclose the source of the news or information they’ve published. And each state has established criteria for determining who is a journalist and is therefore entitled to the legal protections granted to the profession.
Although the federal government does not yet have a journalist shield law as of this posting, as the U.S. Senate took its August recess, it was debating the proposed Free Flow of Information Act, which would provide federal protection for journalists.
Debate on the act will resume when the Senate reconvenes. A major point to be discussed and resolved is the definition of a journalist for purposes of applying the shield law.
Two opposing views of who qualifies as a journalist are currently being argued. One view holds that only a salaried employee of a news organization can qualify as a journalist. The other view advocates a broader definition of a journalist to include bloggers, freelance or independent reporters and writers, and authors of books.
It seems likely that responsible bloggers will eventually be granted protection under a federal shield law. Many bloggers with large followings were once well-established professional journalists working for big media before they were downsized in one of the recent economic downturns.
Although it’s not a certainty, citizen journalism — the growing trend of amateurs reporting news of a more local nature on the Internet — may also be included for accreditation as journalists under the Free Flow of Information Act.
Once an individual meets the requirements for accreditation as a journalist, new questions arise: Will the journalist act in accordance with established journalistic ethics, what are those ethics and who will enforce them?
A fair assumption is that professional journalists who derive their principle incomes from their work for various media will abide by the ethics of their craft. To enforce compliance are a battery of editors, publishers and journalism ombudsmen. Ethical violations, depending on their severity, can get a journalist fired and some could eventuate in a civil suit — a libel or defamation action, for example — or even a criminal charge for impersonating a law enforcement officer, disclosing classified documents, or breaking and entering, all crimes which one journalist or another has perpetrated over the past decades.
Another major issue likely to be debated and resolved before the Free Flow of Information Act can be voted into law and signed by the president, is the question of oversight:
What agency of the federal government will monitor bloggers and other writers or publishers to assure compliance with the ethical standards of professional journalists?
A third question now arises: What are the ethical principles that guide professional journalists? To answer this question, we looked to The New York Times, assuming its code of ethics for journalists would be representative of the profession.
The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism lists 139 items, including a long list of principles. These policies are generally applicable to all journalists, regardless of the media for which they work — print, broadcast and Internet.
Briefly, and in summary, The New York Times requires ethical conduct of their writers, reporters, columnists, editors, producers, editorial writers, photographers, picture editors, art directors, artists, designers, graphics editors and researchers. The ethical guidelines also apply to contributors and freelancers:
- They must avoid conflicts of interest, real or apparent, both in their professional work and in their private lives.
- They must report facts, and those facts must be placed in context.
- They must practice a strict neutrality, impartiality and detachment.
- They must “treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly.”
- They must limit their political activity. Staff may not wear political campaign buttons “or display any other form of political partisanship while on the job.”
- They must not “exploit for personal gain any nonpublic information acquired at work, or use an association with our news organization to gain favor or advantage.”
- Misrepresenting oneself as a law enforcement officer, government official or anyone other than a staff member of The New York Times is forbidden.
There are also ethical guidelines on how to gather the news and rules against:
- Harassment in person or by telephone or computer.
- Accepting gifts and free tickets to performances, shows or sports events.
- Entering competitions and contests.
- Editorial staff members must maintain their independence when dealing with New York Times advertisers.
There are also guidelines on public speaking and fees, giving advice and writing books.
The complete guidelines governing these and other ethical issues are spelled out on The New York Times Company’s website on ethics.
A separate, but in many ways similar, code of ethics applies to photojournalists.
The National Press Photographers Association has established a rigorous guide to ethical conduct and the integrity of photographic images to which professional photojournalists subscribe. Ethical violations, such as photo manipulation, selective cropping to distort truth, or certain enhancements of an image, can result in a photographer getting fired.
Many organizations for professional journalists have posted and endorsed comprehensive codes of ethics for reporters, editors, publishers and all editorial personnel. Among them are:
American Society of Business Publication Editors
American Society of Magazine Editors Guidelines for Editors and Publishers
Society of Magazine Editors
Associated Press Managing Editors Statement of Ethical Principles
Associated Press Managing Editors Association
BBC Editorial Guidelines
British Broadcasting System
Corporation for Public Broadcasting Ethics Guide for Public Radio Journalism
for Public Broadcasting
Detroit Free Press Ethics Policy
Detroit Free Press
Gannett Newspaper Division Ethics Policy
Gannett Company Newspapers
Los Angeles Times Ethics Guidelines for Reporters, Editors
Los Angeles Times
European Codes of Journalism Ethics
Ethicnet’s Databank for European Codes of Journalism Ethics
International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists
International Federation of Journalists
Media & Ethics
U.S. Department of State
National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics
National Press Photographers Association
National Public Radio Ethics Code
National Public Radio
Online News Association Mission Statement
RTDNA Ethics Code
Digital News Association
A Scorecard for Net News Ethics
USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review
Society of American Business Editors and Writers
Society of American Business Editors and Writers
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Society of Professional Journalists
The First Amendment Handbook
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
What are the ethics of online journalism?
USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review
Marc Davis has been an independent journalist for more than twenty years. His reporting-writing has been published by Advertising Age, AOL, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes Investopedia Online, The Journal of the American Bar Association, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The John Marshal Law School Magazine, and numerous other national print and online media. He is also a published novelist and the author of several children’s books. His latest novel, Bottom Line, was published in June, 2013, by The Permanent Press, N.Y.