The recent plaintiff award against self-described “investigative blogger,” Crystal Cox has stirred a hornets nest.
If you’re not up on the status of the blogsphere and the healthy (though unfounded) fear professional media organizations have of this group of new content producers then you’ve probably missed the hoopla.

Here’s a synopsis:
Crystal Cox began a series of blog posts about a Oregon finance company. In the post that seemed to have gotten her trouble, she called one of the company’s principals a thug, thief and a liar.

As Cox found out, those words became fighting words as the financial company promptly filed a civil suit against her in court, alleging defamation. Though the court case was a culmination of three years of repeated damaging postings against the Oregon firm.

The judge, though throwing out a bunch of blog posts, centered on the one highlighted above. Cox refused to name the source of her opinion about thuggery, thievery and lying as it related to Obsidian Finance and therefore she couldn’t prove she was innocent of defamation. As anyone who has taken a media law class knows, the only defense to such laws as libel and defamation is evidential truth.

Cox tried to use Oregon’s media shield law that protects journalists from divulging sources allowing their claim of truth to stand. As the fact that 40 different states each have their own shield laws, tells you – there is no federal constitution basis for such laws, rather they are created by states to ensure the free flow of information isn’t handicapped by the threat of punishment for those who reveal that information to reporters. The shield laws, shield journalists as defined by the state, from divulging sources – it does not protect them from litigation or judgements.

There are those who are seizing upon the judge’s assertion that she was not a journalist and therefore couldn’t use the Oregon’s shield law to protect her source. Endless comments have abounded from outrage that the judge overstepped his bounds to terror that freedom of speech was being impugned. (Read this Forbes piece about Cox trying to sell her PR services to the very firm she disparaged and you will find she’s no journalist…)

But the lesson in all of this is – when you write something negative as fact about a person you must be prepared to defend those statements. This goes for bloggers, journalists, local homeless man whoever, unless the statement is so outrageous that it could not be rationally determined as being true. See Larry Flynt. Journalists have no special protection when it comes to the law.

Shield laws protect journalists from sharing the source of their stories but they do not protect journalist for lying or gathering news by criminal means. If you don’t think so see the $10 million judgement against mainstream newspaper Cincinnati Enquirer for its 18-day investigative series about Chiquita Banana Industries. There’s little dispute that the story provided accurate information, just that the reporter obtained that information by criminal means. He was arrested and convicted and the Enquirer paid Chiquita and retracted the entire story before ever getting sued.

Journalist is not some invisible superpower cape that protects you from the law that ordinary citizens must follow. It didn’t matter whether Cox was labeled a journalist or a stay-at-home mom, both are afforded equal protections under the law, as is Kevin Padrick, the object of Cox’s venom.

Being a journalist doesn’t give you special rights that an ordinary citizen does not enjoy. In fact, our free press laws, are based upon the founding fathers’ support of free speech not of large newspapers.

Citizen journalists do not have to work for the New York Times to produce journalism. They only need training on such things as accurate and fair reporting, ethical source gathering, how to protect their sources and lawfully gaining information. As the Forbes article points out the judge’s decision indeed had a much broader definition of who is a journalist, rather than the narrow definition of who can use the media shield laws. The judge journalist definition:

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For
example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of
any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards
such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of
conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of
confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product
rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get
both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.”

As the judge suggests – it takes journalism knowledge to produce journalism. You can’t use media laws to protect you when you do not adhere to media practices to produce your news.

At World Media Now we not only train citizens on how to write great stories but also how to gather those stories in a fair and ethical way that meets journalism standards. We teach them about media law – in their home country and the United States, and other ethical considerations to help them write stories that are balanced, accurate and fair but most of all true. No matter what country you live in the truth is a better defense than almost any other factor.