It was Van Dongen’s third reaction that was surprising. After trying out different criteria—journalists write for pay; they do original reporting, not just opinion writing—Van Dongen concluded that none of the criteria worked. In today’s digital world, he says, “essentially, anybody who says he’s a journalist is one.” So this past January, Van Dongen’s office announced that it would no longer issue press passes. “Either we must issue such ID to virtually anyone who asks for it or be placed in the position of deciding who is or is not a legitimate journalist. That is not an appropriate role for a state agency,” the department said in a January 15 news advisory. Though stunning in its symbolism, the New Hampshire decision didn’t have much practical effect; Safety Department press passes were rarely needed, except for access to the state legislature floor.
Nor have other institutions rushed to copy Van Dongen’s response to the credentialing dilemma. In institutional worlds such as government, politics, and business, many in charge of press operations still cast a wary eye at requests from outside mainstream media. It’s not that they’re inundated with applicants; many institutions say blogger requests are still something of a novelty. But they’re not at all sure what to do with someone who doesn’t look like a traditional journalist. Last January, for example, the retail chain Target e-mailed blogger Amy Jussel to say it wouldn’t answer her questions about its ad campaigns because “Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets.” Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union went to court in February to force the release of all recent New York Police Department decisions on press-pass requests; the action is aimed at determining whether, as some independent online writers claim, the NYPD denies cards to applicants who don’t work in the journalistic mainstream.
But institutional barriers are definitely crumbling. Bloggers were admitted to the 2004 and 2008 political party conventions. They had reserved seating in a spillover room at the January 2007 trial of former White House aide Scooter Libby. Doors have cracked open at the United Nations, the White House, and the congressional press galleries, which have all accredited online-only journalists. So have legislatures in California, Tennessee, and Georgia, according to Michelle Blackston, a spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Blackston’s group counsels an inclusive press policy—urging lawmakers to leak good stories to bloggers, and to start their own blogs. “We feel strongly it’s a new way for lawmakers to connect with their constituents,” she says.
That is precisely why barriers will continue to erode, at least for bloggers who have credibility and an audience. If their message reaches people newsmakers want to reach, their requests for press credentials and other access will be taken as seriously as those from mainstream media.
Beyond the Shield
Few issues have united mainstream media like their effort to pass a federal shield law, which would give journalists some immunity from having to reveal confidential sources to federal courts. But the number one legal issue for traditional media—which is not expected to win final congressional approval this year—hasn’t stirred a lot of passion in the blogosphere, where writers attract readers with their opinionated take on events much more than with original reporting. In fact, blog writers face a very different set of legal risks from those addressed in the shield law. Bloggers, says Robert Cox, an online writer and president of the Media Bloggers Association, “are going to be intentionally provocative. They rely on hyperbole, sometimes.” Cox says that several hundred lawsuits have been filed against bloggers, most charging defamation, copyright violation, or invasion of privacy.
Mainstream journalists can avoid such charges by turning to editors or in-house lawyers for advice; company insurance also provides protection if they’re sued. In the blogosphere, editors are few and far between, insurance is costly, and legal help is usually limited to consulting a nonprofit resource—like Cox’s group, or the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. “There are some simple things bloggers can do” without compromising their passionate voices, says Cox, “but they don’t know to do them.” Something as basic, for example, as using the disclaimer “alleged” when writing about a person accused but not convicted of a crime. “The more professional you are, the better your standards, the more defensible your position,” says Cox.
But that advice, like the online law course Cox’s group plans to offer to help bloggers get insurance, isn’t always well received in the fiercely independent blogosphere. “There’s an extreme sensitivity to anyone trying to tell some other blogger what to do,” Cox acknowledges.