Are bloggers journalists? Judge rules 'no' in TechnoBuffalo case

January 13, 2012 2:49:46 PM PST
Journalists have certain legal protections when it comes to revealing sources. But do those same protections extend to bloggers?

That question keeps popping up with increasing frequency in courts across the country, and there's no single answer. But in a Cook County case, a judge ruled that the authors of a popular California-based website do not have the same rights reporters do.

Last August, the website TechnoBuffalo published an image of a manual for Motorola's new Droid bionic smartphone before the manual was publicly released. TechnoBuffalo said the image had come from an anonymous tipster.

Johns-Bryne, a Chicago area company that printed the manual went to court demanding that the web-site reveal its source. Technobuffalo refused. While it is not a television station, or a newspaper or magazine, the President of the web-site contends it is a news medium, and is therefore protected by the Illinois Reporter's Shield Law.

"He is with a website that gets over a million hits a month, it has a following. It posts articles ten times a day, several days a week and we believe that qualifies it as a news medium," Elizabeth Bradshaw, attorney for TechnoBuffalo, said.

But Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Panter disagreed on Friday saying that "The content on TechnoBuffalo's website may inform viewers how to use certain devices or offer sneak peeks of upcoming technology, but that does not qualify the website as a "news medium" or its bloggers as "reporters".

That of course begs larger questions. What makes a journalist? Does the Shield Law extend only to accredited reporters from traditional news organizations? If a blogger loads a story with opinion but still gathers original information, show editorial control, and has a following, is he or she not a reporter?

The judge in his opinion said, "This is a fast-evolving issue faces courts everywhere".

TechnoBufalo is appealing today's ruling.

"Now there's a spectrum of bloggers who post pure opinion or non-news may not be entitled to the reporter's privilege, but I think it's very dangerous to say that all bloggers are not entitled to the reporter's privilege," Bradshaw said.

Reporter shield laws are different from state to state, but they're all meant to protect confidential sources that provide information that "encourages a well informed citizenry".

In this case, the judge suggests that the leaked image that went on the website came from a "tipster", and that's not a good example of an investigative source, which is what the Reporter Shield Law was created to protect.

TechnoBuffalo thinks much differently.