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Defining a journalist in Congress

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From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

Legislative definitions of who is a "journalist" promise to be a particularly sticky issue in 2008 as Congress draws closer to passing a federal shield law. In the fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved its version of a federal shield law and two weeks later, the House overwhelming passed its own bill. In this context, the debate as to how to define the covered class strikes an even more resonant chord; each chamber of Congress is considering bills with different covered classes.

The version of the federal bill that passed the House takes a more restrictive approach, but remains sentient of advances in technology. Rather than limit its scope to a particular medium, the House version borrows from those states that have made a distinction between professional and amateur journalists.

Specifically, the House version would protect a "person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports or publishes news or information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person."

The Senate version, on the other hand, takes a far more open-ended stance on defining journalism, giving heed to Justice Byron White’s recognition in Branzburg v. Hayes of the inclusive nature of liberty of the press. Borrowing from a far more function-based definition, protecting anyone engaged in "the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."