Quick Hits – What is a journalist?

Quick Hits – What is a journalist?

Before the rabble starts chiming in, particularly on my journalistic merit or the lack thereof, the question in the title is a rhetorical one. That said, I’m good with any of my more intelligent readers offering their thoughts.

Because in the era of dying newspapers and booming blogs, those formerly focused press demarcation lines have become blurrier than the famed fifty shades of gray. We may not have press credentials, but a Capitol Fax or First Ward column frequently gets more hits than a Paddock Publication, Shaw Media, or Suburban Tribune counterpart.

We also break more stories than either the Tribune or Sun-Times, but does that track record make us “journalists?” What if we simply declared ourselves to be “the press?” Would that work? Perhaps the more important question is, does the distinction really matter anymore?

Blogger vs. Journalist

For better or worse, blogs and bloggers – even the hyper-partisan variety – are now considered to be news sources. But oddly enough, though this chicken or egg question has loomed large for the better part of two decades, the Illinois and Federal Courts have yet to determine exactly what a journalist is.

And they haven’t weighed in on that question likely because the vast majority of Illinois courtrooms are open to the public, so the “who’s a journalist” distinction doesn’t need to be addressed. But what if the coverage involves a juvenile proceeding? Then it gets real and the question must be answered.

Don’t look to the State of Illinois for help! The statute simply stipulates that juvenile courtrooms are to be sealed with the exception of the “news media” who may observe those hearings. Of course, as is par for the course in our strange state, the codebook doesn’t begin to describe what the term “news media” really means.

And there’s virtually no precedent either.

In 2007, a blogger with a curriculum vitae similar to Mr. Miller’s and mine, tried to attend a Peoria juvenile hearing. But with no clear legal definition of “news media” available, the judge polled the principles, and when a social worker and an attorney objected, the blogger was barred from the courtroom.

The judge ruled that “Operating a “so-called” blog doesn’t make the person a journalist.”

But when you consider that mainstream blogs have supplanted the print media in scope, depth, and reach, the 13 years since that Peoria ruling come out to about 92 in dog years. A 2007 decision regarding bloggers matters about as much as 2020 argument on the efficacy of buggy whips.

The 9th Circuit Federal Court attempted to address this issue, but they’ve taken the chickenshit bass-ackwards approach by shooting down anyone who insists that bloggers aren’t the press. No court has had the cojones to simply state that “Bloggers are journalists” or the “news media.”

To be fair, it is a very difficult question. As much as I like to tell people that I’m the “news media” with all of the associated rights and privileges, every bleepin’ time I call the Cubs for my playoff press pass they turn me down.

And the Superbowl people won’t even call me back.

But seriously, I may understand the unique code of juvenile court conduct, but what if a 19-year-old blogger disclosed the name of a minor victim or defendant? What if they described some sort of sexual abuse that, once public, would make it impossible for a minor defendant to get a fair trial? That wouldn’t work out well for anyone – particularly the blogger!

Then there are those partisan journalists who leak privileged information all the time. So, regardless of whether the courts answer this question, much like Blanche DuBois, they will always “have to depend on the kindness of strangers.” Put more simply, successfully defining the term “journalist” provides no confidentiality guarantees.

“But Jeff! Please tell me this isn’t the bleep you think about in your spare time and, if it is, why the bleep are you sharing it with us?”

Ah! That’s easy! Sixteenth Circuit Chief Judge, Clint Hull, and I are endeavoring to come up with an answer as we speak.

Given my previous coverage, my intention is to attend the transfer hearing for the Batavia High School student recently charged with possessing bomb-making material. For those non-legal folks, a “transfer hearing” is one where the judge determines if a minor will be tried as an adult.

My continuing contention is that the State Attorney’s effort to try this 15-year-old child as adult is a vastly misguided move that will only make everything worse. As it stands now, it appears that the individual juvenile court judge gets to determine who the “news media” is, but that’s the kind of standard that’s no standard at all.

Now, y’all know I’ll be the first one to bitch about something, but I can’t compliment Chief Judge Hull and some of his black-dressed compatriots enough. We’ve had a series of collaborative conversations in which we’ve truly tried to consider all the reasonable bases.

I provided that rare precedent and some applicable associated legal thought, while Judge Hull has availed himself of newspaper associations and higher courts to come up with a legal basis for where bloggers rank. In the words of that great philosopher, Regis Philbin, we both want a “final answer!”

Though it’s sometimes necessary to lower the boom, I’d much rather work cooperatively to bring balance to the political force. My hat’s off to the 16th Circuit for making that happen.

As I like to say, I’ll keep you posted.

11 thoughts on “Quick Hits – What is a journalist?

    1. Debra,

      I certainly appreciate your concern, but the recent counterattacks were nuthin’ compared to what national Trump supporters did to me after I went after Catalina Lauf. Yikes!

      But in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Tom Petty, “I won’t back down!”

      I do have a way with words, don’t I?


    1. Marjorie,

      I completely understand! That’s why I used Rich Miller and myself as examples – we both have a reasonable track record. Meanwhile, some of the Daily Herald reporters suck.

      And when you’re trying to set standard, considering the competency of the individual is an impossible task. Then it is no standard.

      Meanwhile, I will continue to keep my eye on Aurora!


  1. Jeff: look to your favorite act, FOIA, it has a definition of news media
    (f) “News media” means a newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format, a news service whether in print or electronic format, a radio station, a television station, a television network, a community antenna television service, or a person or corporation engaged in making news reels or othet…

    I know courts are not subject to law but it is a definition of news media in an Illinois statute so it has value
    And as a publisher of a regular blog or semi regular as you tend to take days off you qualify

    1. Jim,

      Considering anyone can issue a FOIA, I’m rather surprised that statute actually defines “new media” and I never would’ve thought to look there.

      Thank you for the head’s up, I will send that info to the Chief Judge shortly.


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