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Journalist: definition needed for protection

by on October 24, 2013

The past few classes have consisted of watching News War, a Frontline investigative series on the future of news. The series focuses heavily on the history of American journalism, ultimately aiming to clarify the murky future direction of American journalism with past examples. The interviews touch on a few difficult ethical dilemmas reporters and news organizations have been forced to face over the years.

Many of these dilemmas resulted in hostility shown to individual reporters whose journalism standards forbade them from complying with the law or government officials. Journalists covering national security, for instance, are constantly at odds with an administration over control of the national agenda and release of information (e.g., New York Times wiretapping leak; Pentagon Papers). Journalists in cases such as these are often punished under the Espionage Act of 1917, which:

makes it a crime to hurt the United States or benefit a foreign country by collecting or communicating information that would harm the national defense. It is also a crime to enter an installation or obtain a document connected to the national defense in order to hurt the United States or benefit a foreign country. Knowingly receiving classified information that has been obtained illegally, as well as passing it on, also runs afoul of the Espionage Act.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

It is clear that all journalists need protection from laws in the name of educating the public for a healthier democracy. If journalists are persecuted, forced to give up their sources and therefore silenced, who is to keep those in power in check?

Legal protection is hard to come by, however, as it would be necessary to define the term “journalist.” Go ahead, try and answer me this: what constitutes a journalist? Is a newspaper reporter to receive the same protection as a freelance community blogger? What do you think legal protection for “journalists” consists of?


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