“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote in his satire Animal Farm. This sarcastic quote is turning out to be true for hyperlocal journalists, many of whom are finding limited access to local public records and meetings while more rights are granted to representatives of traditional media organizations.
The practice of denying hyperlocal publishers the full status of other journalists has caught the ire of organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has fought to level the playing field for public access on behalf of hyperlocal news media and bloggers. Street Fight reported previously that state courts have denied hyperlocal bloggers state shield law protection because the courts believed such hyperlocals were not qualified members of the news media. Similarly, local officials have granted traditional media access to public records and meetings while denying the same privileges to hyperlocals. For example:
• In 2008, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) denied the hyperlocal publications Greater Greater Washington and DCist a waiver of fees for access to certain WMATA records. WMATA’s chief of staff concluded “because the appeal panel determined that the websites do not serve to provide information to the general public, we find that you are not a representative of the news media.”
• The Lake Oswego City Council denied the hyperlocal political blog Loaded Orygun access at a Lake Oswego City Council executive session because it was not a member of the news media. The Council drafted a policy that required that news media representatives must work for an organization that is registered with the state Corporations Division and the representatives must adhere to the SPJ ethics code.
“Bloggers can be journalists (and journalists ca be bloggers),” according to the EFF. The EFF was organized to champion the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights and has battled for legal and institutional recognition for any individual or entity engaged in journalistic endeavors. “We believe that people who do journalism are journalists,” said Rebecca Jeschke, EFF’s Media Relations Director & Digital Rights Analyst. Jeschke recently provided Street Fight with the following insight regarding access to public records and meetings by hyperlocal journalists, bloggers and publishers.
Street Fight. Does the EFF believe bloggers that cover local community news are entitled to the same privileges as traditional media, and why?
Jeschke: We believe that people who do journalism are journalists. That would cover folks who work in the traditional mainstream media as well as anyone else who publishes journalism on a website or elsewhere, paid or unpaid. These independent journalists should have the same rights and protections as paid journalists affiliated with major outlets.
Street Fight. What support does the EFF give to bloggers on these issues?
Jeschke: You may have seen our Legal Guide for Bloggers, which applies to anyone who publishes anything on the Internet, actually. So it’s useful for folks using Facebook, Twitter, etc. We also have done legal work, backing reporter source protection for a blogger, and protecting anonymous bloggers. Additionally, we’ve supported bloggers who were attacked with bogus legal threats, like defamation accusations when they were expressing an opinion, or copyright infringement accusations when they were exercising their fair use rights.
• Many states generally require meetings of public bodies to be open and public. Under limited circumstances, the agency can conduct a closed meeting (such as for addressing certain personnel issues).
• Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), anyone can seek access to public records held by federal agencies. Members of the news media are entitled to a fee waiver. Bloggers’ FAQ on the Freedom of Information Act.
• States also have public records laws. For example, the California Public Records Act provides access to public records held by state and local agencies.
Other resources available to hyperlocal news media include The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press and Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. The Reporters’ Committee offers a Freedom of Information Act form letter for use by journalists.
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.
Image courtesy of Flickr user boellstiftung.