Court Says Blogger Isn’t a ‘Journalist’ — Implications for Hyperlocal

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A federal judge in Portland, Oregon has declared that a local “investigative blogger,” doesn’t qualify as a journalist — calling into question whether online hyperlocal news publishers should be treated differently than traditional media.

Crystal Cox calls herself an “investigative blogger” and runs sites “exposing corruption.” Obsidian Finance Group filed a $10 million defamation claim against Cox in Portland, alleging that she made several defamatory postings against Obsidian and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Cox defended herself in federal court but lost. According to a report by Seattle Weekly, she faces a $2.5 million judgment.

Cox claimed her information for the Obsidian postings came from a confidential source, and, therefore, Oregon’s Shield Law protected her from disclosing her source at trial. In an opinion filed on November 30, 2011, Federal Judge Marco Hernandez disagreed, ruling that Oregon’s Shield Law was limited to traditional media like newspapers, broadcast stations, magazines, and news services — but not to an “investigative blogger” who was not affiliated with traditional media.

The court further concluded that Cox was not entitled to claim other defenses against damages that could be raised by traditional media because she failed to prove she was a bona fide journalist. “Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist,” Judge Hernandez wrote. Hernandez ruled that Cox failed to show, among other things, that she had any education in journalism or “any credential of proof of any affiliation with an recognized news entity.” Cox told Seattle Weekly that she plans to appeal the ruling.

Last June 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a journalist’s posting on an online discussion board was not entitled to protection under New Jersey’s Shield law. The court concluded that message boards were not similar to traditional new organizations protected by the law.

Although Cox was not a hyperlocal news publisher, the decisions raise concern on whether online hyperlocal news sites, some of them published in blog format, should be viewed  and treated differently than traditional media. That question remains unresolved, but it serves as a reminder that getting the facts right is paramount in avoiding trouble.

This article is provided for information only and does not provide legal advice.

Brian Dengler is an attorney with Vorys Legal Counsel and journalist who covers legal issues in eMedia. He is a former vice-president of AOL, Inc., a former newspaperman, and an EMMY-winning TV journalist. He teaches new media issues as an adjunct at Kent State University and formerly at Otterbein University.