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.

I, Journalist
“Bloggers vs. journalists is over,” declared a January 2005 post by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who writes prolifically about the new world of journalism at his site PressThink. “The question now isn’t whether blogs can be journalism. They can be, sometimes. It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists. They apparently are, sometimes. We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward.”

When Rosen wrote that almost four years ago, events hadn’t moved nearly far enough to convince many mainstream journalists that the debate was over. But in 2008, with old media in a financial crisis that seems to deepen by the week, resistance is evaporating. Traditional reporters and online writers are increasingly converging under one shared journalistic tent, where each side is free to borrow from the other. Thus, mainstream reporters still write news and analysis that strive for impartiality, but increasingly they also blog (at midsummer, nytimes.com had sixty-one news and opinion blogs; there were eighty-one at washingtonpost.com). Bloggers still aggregate and riff off the news reported in mainstream media, but a few are beginning to draw readers with original reporting.

These days it’s more the act of journalism that gets you entry into the tent, not whether you’re doing it every day, or doing it for pay. There are still distinctions, though. “Old” journalists are called professional, traditional, mainstream, or institutional; “new” ones are amateur, nontraditional, nonprofessional, or citizen journalists. PressThink’s Rosen promotes “pro-am” experiments, in which unpaid citizen writers like Mayhill Fowler (who broke the Obama “bittergate” story for Huffington Post) work with professional editors like Marc Cooper (a journalism professor and former contributing editor at The Nation) to cover the news in different ways.

Does this mean we’re one big happy family in the big new tent? Far from it. In an interview, Rosen said many bloggers still fume that they have second-class status; even when they break news, “there’s still a sense that a story hasn’t really arrived until it’s picked up by the mainstream media.” And while some traditionalists may be enjoying the breezier writing style that blogging allows, they wonder what it’s doing to journalism’s hallowed standards.

Setting the Bar
Last December, former NBC correspondent David Hazinski unloaded his traditional-journalist concerns on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s op-ed page. Hazinski, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, railed against television’s increasing reliance on a new form of citizen journalism—video shot by nonprofessionals, like CNN’s iReports.

Calling a citizen iReporter a journalist, said Hazinski, “is like saying someone who carries a scalpel is a ‘citizen surgeon’ or someone who can read a law book is a ‘citizen lawyer.’ ” What distinguishes a journalist from the average citizen who records news on his or her cell phone, said Hazinski, are education, skill, and standards. “Information without journalistic standards is called gossip,” he concluded.

Ann Cooper teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.