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Picture: 123RF/GILC
Picture: 123RF/GILC

Last week the Washington Supreme Court tried to figure out who counts as a journalist in the digital age. It concluded that just having a camera and a YouTube channel isn’t enough.

The case involved a YouTuber who had a confrontation with sheriff’s deputies in Pierce County. After the incident, he filed a Public Records Act request for the names, birth dates, photographs and other information for all deputies and personnel working then.

Normally many of those records are off-limits to the public to protect law enforcement from harassment, retaliation and potential identity theft. There’s an exception though. Members of the “news media”, as defined in state law.

The media becomes a stand-in for the public. A news organisation might, for example, need a birth date and photo to check previous employment of an official embroiled in a scandal or to verify that a law enforcement officer was involved in an incident.

The YouTuber insisted he was an “investigative journalist” who counted as a member of the news media based on his “Libertys Champion” YouTube channel. Officials disagreed, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. There the majority ruled against his being a member of the news media. The court’s analysis focused primarily on the fact he was a lone wolf, not a member of a news organisation.

However, the nature of news and journalism is evolving rapidly. Livestreamers wear “Press” armbands while attending and participating in protests. People take to Twitter to announce what is happening at local government hearings. Others operate websites that report in detail on focused topics.

Wherever that line falls there will be tough edge cases. Most people would trust a trained plumber to fix a leaky pipe flooding their basement over someone who just has a wrench and says he knows pipes. The wrench doesn’t make the plumber, and social media doesn’t make the journalist. Bona fide members of the news media are trained and follow professional standards and ethics.

Yet there are a lot of people doing serious journalism today who don’t work for a news organisation. Figuring out how to accommodate them remains a challenge. On the narrowest of readings, the court’s decision might have excluded too many. /Seattle Times, June 2

Seattle Times


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