Josh Wolf And What Is A Citizen Journalist?

4 04 2007

Josh Wolf has been released from jail after spending eight months being incarcerated for not giving up video he had taken of a protest at a G-8 summit from 2005. I’ve written about Josh Wolf before. Bill Hobbs posted about Wolf in August of last year as well with a somewhat different take on the situation than I had.

Wolf turned over the tape. He’s out. But is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so.

Here’s an excerpt from Wolf’s first post on his blog since his release. His says it wasn’t about the video tape but other things as well:

When I was subpoenaed in February of last year, I was not only ordered to provide my unedited footage, but to also submit to testimony and examination before the secretive grand jury. Although I feel that my unpublished material should be shielded from government demands, it was the testimony which I found to be the more egregious assault on my right and ethics as both a journalist and a citizen.

As there was nothing of a sensitive or confidential nature on my video outtakes, I had no reason to withhold their publication once I had exhausted all my legal appeals. When that point arrived I had already spent three months behind bars. I was advised by my legal team that publishing the video would not lead to my release; instead it would indicate to the court that my imprisonment was having a coercive effect even though it was not.

In pondering the new digital media, where citizen journalists are being asked to shoot video or help break stories, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Wolf’s situation sparked a great debate over the first amendment. In the ruling from Judge William Alsup the issue came down to this:

Wolf’s lawyers argued that the First Amendment gave him the right to refuse the subpoena to turn over the rest of his tape.

But Alsup cited a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. Constitution does not entitle reporters, or anybody else, to withhold their confidential sources or unpublished material in a grand jury investigation or criminal trial.

California’s shield law allows reporters to keep sources and unpublished material secret. But there is no federal shield law protecting reporters from federal investigations.

According to the report from the Washington Post, the video tape that Wolf protected really didn’t have anything controversial in the tape and he had already sold portions of it before his incarceration to television outlets.

But I return to my question and I’ve thought about it. When is a journalist a journalist? Citizen journalist: it’s the catch phrase of all the conferences and meeting I attend these days regarding newspapers. We talk about it non-stop. Is Josh Wolf a journalist, some people say no, others say yes like Jeff Jarvis who wrote a very indepth break down last August as well (Hobbs has it up too) and says this as some food for thought:

And what are the responsibilities of journalists as citizens to report crime and aid the prosecution? I was in the habit of calling bloggers “citizen journalists” (I’ve since updated my blogictionary and now call this networked journalism because, as I said above, it’s dangerous to define journalism by who does it). Oftentimes, when I used the phrase “citizen journalist,” professional journalists would complain to me, “Well, we’re citizens, too!” Indeed, we are. So what is our responsibility to society in criminal matters? Some say Judith Miller witnessed a high crime in the White House and should have reported it to prosectuors. Others might say that if Wolf has evidence of a cop getting bashed and refuses to hand it over, he is doing nothing less than aiding and abetting the crime.

The lines are blurred. It’s actually a two-fold issue for consideration. One is about the shield law (remember Judith Miller) and the other is about citizen journalism.

And I’ll end with this as we ponder all of it. If a citizen journalist works with a television network, let’s say WKRN because I’m somewhat familiar with their commitment to addressing new media, and breaks a story (remember when former WKRN reporter now think tank guy Trent Seibert did a breakdown on his now defunct blog about wanting to see blogs get more involved with original reporting) is policy in place to deal with the new “network journalism”where everyone is protected in the end? On Dec. 7th of last year, Seibert wrote this:

Frankly, I’d like to see more original reporting on blogs. Part of that reason is selfish — I mine blogs all the time for story ideas. The other part is that, if they choose, all citizens — not just professional journalists — can use the First Amendment, the Freedom of Information Act, and the state’s public records laws to shed light on government, education and business.

But who is what? I’m not naive, I realize I tied a lot of things together but it still has the thread of where the lines in the sand are.

I’m glad to see Josh Wolf has been released. Now the dialogue begins in the next phase of this on-going story.


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3 responses

4 04 2007
Nashville is Talking » Josh Wolf Freed Following Deal

[…] RELATED: Josh Wolf And What Is A Citizen Journalist? […]

4 04 2007
Sharon Cobb

I tried to raise these same questions and got pounced on.

I’ll just say that I believe the first amendment applies to all American citizens.

However, that doesn’t make everyone with a camera or tape recorder a journalist. Many don’t understand basic things like invasion of privacy, libel and slander laws, the importance of “off the record” and confidential sources, etc.

When is a citizen journalist a journalist? I don’t know. Like I said, I really tried to do an in depth story about this and get answers to that question because I don’t know either.

Maybe people who call themselves citizen journalists should ask themselves this: Am I willing to go to jail for a year (or longer) to protect a source? If your answer is “No,” then I’d say you’re not a journalist.

7 04 2007
Gaurav

Interesting post. Citizen journalism in a latest catch pharse in Web 2.0 infested internet. In a way it means using tools like blogs to make ordinary people report on things which are not focussed by mainstream media, but the way it is happening on some of the so called citizen journalism sites is deplorable
Low point in Citizen Journalism

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