A recent court ruling has re-ignited the debate about whether bloggers are journalists.
A U.S. District Court judge in Portland, Ore., ruled that a blogger who wrote about an investment firm that subsequently accused her of defamation must pay the company $2.5 million because she's a blogger who doesn't legally qualify as a journalist.
Crystal Cox, whose blogs are a mixture of fact, opinion, and commentary, wrote several posts that were critical of Obsidian Finance Group and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. In one blog post, Cox accused Padrick of fraud while serving as trustee in a real estate bankruptcy case.
The firm considered the posts defamatory and filed a $10 million lawsuit (PDF) against Cox in January. The blog the court focused on during the case was more factual in tone, suggesting she had an inside source who was leaking her information. Obsidian demanded she reveal the source of her information to prove its veracity.
Cox, who acted as her own attorney in the case, refused to reveal her source, arguing that she was afforded the same protections as journalists under Oregon's Shield Law. (Shield laws protect journalists who refuse to reveal in court the source of information obtained during the news-gathering process.)
No person connected with, employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public shall be required by a legislative, executive or judicial officer or body, or any other authority having power to compel testimony or the production of evidence, to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise:
(a) The source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public; or
(b) Any unpublished information obtained or prepared by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public.
"'Medium of communication,'" as defined by Oregon law, "has its ordinary meaning and includes, but is not limited to, any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system." (Emphasis added.)
Despite Oregon's legal definition of "any medium of communication," Judge Marco A. Hernandez disagreed with Cox, saying that "although [the] defendant is a self-proclaimed 'investigative blogger' and defines herself as 'media,' the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law in the first instance."
The judge further ruled that even if Cox had qualified for shield law protections, they would not have applied to protecting the identity of the source of allegedly defamatory content in a civil trial. "Because this case is a civil action for defamation, defendant cannot rely on the media shield law," he said.
However, Bruce E. H. Johnson, an attorney who drafted Washington state's media shield legislation in 2006, said the Oregon law appears to be a bit dated. "Oregon's law was probably written before blogging was accounted for," Johnson told Seattle Weekly, adding that, "I believe the shield law would have been applied [in Washington state]."
Cox said she intends to appeal the court's decision.