Should Freelancers Qualify as Journalists?

Whether you love it or hate it, the term “journalist” is increasingly being accepted by our culture to include freelancers, bloggers, even just citizens who happen to “be there”.

In a crazy story I read about first over at Wired Mag’s new photo blog, RawFile, they report that a student photographer who photographed paramedics tending to a homicide victim was given journalistic protection provided for by the law. From the Wired story:

“In recognizing the journalistic entitlements of the student, whose name has been sealed by request of his lawyers, Judge Tomar Mason has strengthened persuasive authority supporting the rights of freelance photographers and journalists.

Legal wrangling erupted following the April 17th homicide of the student’s primary subject, Norris Bennett, a resident of San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood. The student had met with Bennett earlier in the day and admits to being in the neighborhood at the time of the shooting. When police responded to the scene, the student was found photographing paramedics tending to Bennett but he refused to submit to an interview, citing protection under California’s shield law.

Police were issued a search warrant by Judge Mason, which they executed on April 27, seizing photographs, files, cameras and DNA evidence from the student’s home…[click the ‘continue reading’ link below]

…In overturning the original warrant, Judge Mason recognized the validity of the student’s published freelance work, as well as the project underway when the student’s subject Bennett was murdered. Police will have to return all items seized during the execution of the warrant. It is unclear whether the District Attorney’s office will attempt to appeal the decision…”

Is our judicial branch actually coalescing that most traditional “news” is really yesterday’s news, and that a lot of “new” news is provided by freelancers, students, and citizens?

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9 Responses to Should Freelancers Qualify as Journalists?

  1. Joe Scozzari September 21, 2009 at 4:52 pm #

    i think that their is good reason to extend protection to bloggers and freelancers (i am a freelancer though, my market area, spokane WA is mostly freelancers their are less and less full time people every month that goes by, but, i do not consider myself a journalist, or even a photojournalist)this case however is not about protecting a source. I believe most of these cases are more about moves to quash a bit of information or in this case to the actions of the photographer himself. the story (from Wired) cites numerous cases in which i believe journalistic protections are warranted. this case however i fail to see any reason why this persons works should not have been disclosed, there was no source to protect (other than his own actions, or possibly lack of action)

  2. Anonymous September 21, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

    I suppose what it boils down to is not what constitutes a journalist, but where the balance should rest in the test.

    Should we err on the side of protection of freedom of the press by having a definition of journalist broad enough that it sometimes captures someone that some might think is a non-journalist?

    Or, should be err on the side of a restrictive definition of journalist which sometimes leaves out a legitimate freelance journalist, thereby undermining the press' freedom and the protection of all journalists?

    I err on the side of freedom of the press and protecting journalists from a state which might attempt to undermine their freedoms to report on matters openly and without fear.

  3. Rockhopper September 21, 2009 at 6:22 pm #

    Access to the latest tech is creating citizen journos which is fine I can live with that.

    However journalism as a profession had a unwritten rules, and traditions that these citizen journalists know nothing about.

    This ignorance to tradition and values is undermining the industry.

    If I am working at a job and a uncredited NUJ journo turns up I generally do not give them the time of day. Not nice I know, however the other professionals that are there do the same as they are protecting there interests.

  4. Taylor Brooks September 21, 2009 at 9:48 pm #

    No. And they shouldn't qualify as entrepreneurs either.

  5. Kim Long Vo September 21, 2009 at 10:45 pm #

    I don't know whether or not they should be considered journalists or not. But this reminds me of an incident that happened in my area recently.

    It was at a local High School football game that I was photographing for one of the school's yearbook. One of the home team's coaches is also the yearbook advisor and my friend, so I was helping him out. But anyways, one of the players on the field collapsed after a play on the field. And while people were trying to help resuscitate him, there was a photographer who kept trying to get up real close while they were helping to try to get pictures. The referee kept yelling at him to back off too. I'm pretty sure he has Press credentials and is a professional (on paper).

    I just thought that his behavior was quite inappropriate. I can understand him wanting to get pictures for a story or whatever, but to get in the way of people trying to save the life of a 17 year old? I hope that this is a rare case and that most photojournalists are not this bad. I don't know, I haven't been taking pictures long.

    The strange thing is, I don't even know what he was doing that close. The guy was using a Canon 70-700 L f/2.8. And I know that the minimum focusing distance on that thing is 1.3m if it's an IS lens. So what was he even thinking going in that close because he COULD NOT have gotten a picture anyways.

    Kind of off topic I guess, but what do you think about how far a photographer should be able to go to get a picture?

  6. Rasmus September 22, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    Well, the question of how far someone can take the protection of the law on his side for taking some pictures is difficult to decide, but the question who to call a journalist I think is not.

    A democracy needs a free press to function and to have a really free press the state can't define who is a journalist and who is not or it would have the chance to censor there.

    Result of that is that anyone can be a journalist, just be delivering something newsworthy, a blog can be as much a journalistic medium as a newspaper (and both can be just plain gossip).

    Of course the quality differs a lot from individual to individual, but setting clear limits who can be a journalist would make the concept of a free press obsolete.

  7. John Roberts September 23, 2009 at 2:24 am #


    Since you seem to fancy yourself a "professional journalist", no doubt with a degree from an accredited university, then you should know the difference between the words "there" and "their", and the correct use of each. Perhaps it's not the ignorance of tradition and values, but ignorance of the English language that's undermining the industry.

  8. TranceMist September 23, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    If you limit the protection afforded to "journalists" to a select few, especially if those select few are then picked by a government or a few large entities, then you may as well eliminate the protection altogether.

    Freedom requires the ability to freely gather and distribute news, and if you can lock someone out of that process, then there is no freedom.

  9. Seekerami September 24, 2009 at 11:39 am #

    As has been pointed out, who defines what photojournalism is and who qualifies. When the government writes the dictionary, that becomes a very easy, legal source of censorship. I firmly believe on erring on the side of freedom as history has shown that freedoms taken are rarely returned.

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