Who’s a journalist?

Whew! We made the cut.

According to the official definition approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, those of us who toil away in the newsroom and related departments at The Daily Sentinel can be identified as “covered journalists.”

But Internet bloggers, beginning freelance writers or rookie publishers — not so much, at least according to legislation being contemplated in the Senate to protect reporters and news media from having to reveal confidential sources.

That sort of protection is certainly a worthy goal.

But there is something more than a little unsettling about having Congress tell this industry who is and isn’t a journalist. After all, we’ve managed to survive in this country almost 240 years without the government officially defining journalists.

According to the Senate committee, a “covered journalist” is an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The person must have been employed in journalism for at least one year of the past 20, or three months in the past five years.

However, some bloggers, rookie reporters and freelance writers, not to mention publishers new to the industry generate important news stories. Why shouldn’t the same protections as more traditional journalists?

The law under consideration was introduced in part in response to egregious overreaching by the U.S. Justice Department on a couple of high-profile news stories this spring.

In one case, the department secretly subpoenaed two months worth of telephone records for a number of Associated Press editors and reporters after the news agency reported about U.S. intelligence agencies warning of a possible new terrorist attack by al-Qaida.

In the second, the Justice Department secretly used a search warrant to obtain emails of a Fox News journalist who had reported on U.S. intelligence information regarding North Korea.

Both those federal actions violated established policy regarding the use of secret warrants, and arguably breached First Amendment protections. Tougher laws to rein in federal agencies like the Justice Department may be necessary.

In trying to offer legal cover for journalists to protect confidential sources in cases involving federal agencies, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to ensure they weren’t providing aid to people like Edward Snowden or groups like WikiLeaks that make public classified information. Hence the attempt to restrict the definition of a “covered journalist.”

But there are dangers in such a definition, apart from excluding people who could very well engage in important journalistic work. In some future court case or IRS audit, officials could look at this law and tell a blogger, freelance writer or would-be Joseph Pulitzer with a new publishing endeavor, “Congress defined who is a journalist, and you don’t fit it.”

That could discourage or eliminate the work of people who might make real contributions to our national dialogue, and that would be a great loss.


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