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Changing times, changing committee

From the Spring 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. The Reporters Committee celebrated an important…

From the Spring 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

The Reporters Committee celebrated an important milestone last spring — it’s 40th Anniversary.

The organization was born of a very simple idea — reporters helping other reporters besieged by subpoenas seeking confidential newsgathering information.

Over 40 years, the Reporters Committee has evolved from a one-issue organization to a full-service legal defense and advocacy group working on behalf of journalists anywhere U.S. law applies. Just as our mission has grown in recent years, our constituency has grown as well.

Newspapers, news magazines and broadcast news operations have faced dwindling revenues and, in some cases, audiences in recent years. Yet there are more reporters and more information in circulation than ever before.

In 1970, the Reporters Committee mostly helped newspaper, broadcast and magazine reporters who earned their livelihoods practicing journalism. These days, we help professional reporters in newsrooms as well as independent, unpaid reporters who work from laptops in coffee shops.

It’s not surprising that not a week goes by when one of us at the Reporters Committee is not asked a variation of this question: In today’s media world, just exactly who is a journalist? Do you know one when you see one?

We have always advocated a sort-of “function” test. If at the time you were gathering information, did you tell your sources you were collecting information for a story? Did you do something creative or original to the information you collected? Did you always intend to disseminate your story to an audience? If you could answer “yes” to all of these questions, we would have considered you to be a journalist. That definition still works very well today.

We’re better off as a nation when citizens are able to self-identify as journalists. The last thing this country needs is a scheme under which the government licenses journalists. The globe is filled with countries where this happens, and the result is never more democracy.

Despite my belief that this is self-evident, I was astonished recently when a Michigan legislator proposed a “Michigan Registered Reporter” bill that would require people who want to be considered official members of the press to pay a registration fee and submit writing samples to get registered. The bill would require applicants to have a journalism degree, three years of experience and a letter of recommendation from someone else who is a “registered reporter.”

Sen. Bruce Patterson said he didn’t think the bill had a prayer of passage — that pesky First Amendment probably would have gotten in the way. But he thought such a system might have advantages: the public would know whose reporting to trust and registered journalists would have greater legitimacy.

Okay. I’ll give Sen. Patterson credit for creativity. But I’ll stick to our current practice of identifying reporters by what they do, not by some government seal of approval.

The public used to be able to rely on the institutional press to push for greater access to information by lobbying for legislative reform or filing lawsuits. Those publishers and news directors are still fighting the most urgent battles, but sometimes the choice has come down to filing an access lawsuit or keeping a couple of reporters. Those are hard choices for any newsroom manager. And don’t think the bureaucrats haven’t figured out that they can arbitrarily deny a records request because they know the institutional press can’t afford to challenge them.

We’re going to have to rely on more of those citizen journalists to fight these battles. Please consider making a donation to the Reporters Committee so that we can prepare tomorrow’s journalists to engage in self help.

We hope our efforts lead to better reporting by independent journalists, the release of more public records, more public meetings, fewer sealed court records, fewer closed hearings and fewer subpoenas served on journalists.

— Lucy Dalglish