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In digital age, who is a journalist?

This editorial appeared in the Seattle Times.

Last week, the Washington Supreme Court tried to figure out who counts as a journalist in the digital age. It concluded that just having a camera and a YouTube channel isn't enough.

The case involved a YouTuber who had a confrontation with sheriff's deputies in Pierce County. After the incident, he filed a Public Records Act request for the names, birthdates, photographs and other information for all deputies and personnel.

Normally many of those records are off-limits to the public to protect law enforcement from harassment, retaliation and potential identity theft. There's an exception, though. Members of the "news media," as defined in state law, may receive the records.

Although news media interests generally have opposed making public employees' dates of birth private for anyone, lawmakers gave the press that privileged access because they were persuaded that professional journalists could be trusted to use the personal information responsibly. A news organization might, for example, need a birthdate and photo to check previous employment of an official embroiled in a scandal or to verify that a law enforcement officer was involved in an incident.

The YouTuber insisted he was an "investigative journalist" based on his "Libertys Champion" YouTube channel. Officials disagreed, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. There the majority ruled against his being a member of the news media. The court's analysis focused primarily on the fact that he was a lone wolf, not a member of a news organization.

Most people would trust a trained plumber to fix a leaky pipe flooding their basement over someone who just has a wrench and says he knows pipes. The wrench doesn't make the plumber, and social media doesn't make the journalist. Bona fide members of the news media are trained and follow professional standards and ethics.

Yet there are a lot of people doing serious journalism today who don't work for a news organization. Figuring out how to accommodate those journalists remains a challenge. On the narrowest of readings, the court's decision might have excluded too many of them.

Legislative debate must further clarify who and what counts as news media so that modern, legitimate local free press can thrive.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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