Internet expanding scope, meaning of ‘free press’

Sunday, June 3, 2007

For most of the nation’s history, much of the public’s attention — and much of the legal contention — regarding a free press has been on the “free” part.

But of late, figuring out the “press” portion has gotten a bit tougher, often as the result of the work of Internet entrepreneurs.

There’s no specific definition of “press” in the 45 words of the First Amendment. So who might be bound by responsibilities that go along with the role of a free press? Are bloggers and other Web users part of a broadly defined “press” even though they certainly could not have been envisioned by the Colonial-era Founders who wrote the First Amendment? And what of those who aren’t defined by traditional measures of circulation and ratings, but who may well have global audiences?

There are occasional contributors to Web sites, often as a result of their random presence at news events such as the tragic killings at Virginia Tech. Within minutes of the first reports of the campus shootings, even as news organizations were rushing staff to the scene, amateur cell-phone images and video were featured prominently on television and the Web.

The bloggers and “citizen journalist” contributors raise serious legal issues. One example: A proposed federal “shield law” would protect reporters in many circumstances from having to reveal confidential news sources to federal grand jurors. The law would mirror provisions in nearly all states. But opponents say defining who is a journalist — who is “press” — must be accomplished first, so that every citizen is not someday sheltered from testifying.

It may be that such a definition ultimately may include anyone, in any medium, who takes on a meaningful news-reporting function — as opposed to simply writing a diary entry or composing a personal letter.

Other issues raised have less legal bite, but nonetheless bear watching. There is the innovative (and shocking, to some) idea advanced by the editor and publisher of Pasadena Now, an online news site focused on that California city. James Macpherson proposed hiring two reporters living in India to watch Pasadena City Council meetings via a regular webcast and then write news reports. The intercontinental arrangement’s cost was reported to be much less than the expense of hiring a local reporter to do the same.

The situation poses yet more perplexing New Age questions: Can and should technology substitute for “being there”?

On its Web site, Pasadena Now pledges to use the advantages of digital media — the “immediacy … of interactivity … audio and visual” — to better inform its readers. And there’s no reason to doubt that reporters based in India or elsewhere could not write fully and fairly on what they saw on a webcast — but is that a news story?

Now before traditional journalists just write off the idea of such remote staffing, they ought to consider that many mainstream U.S. news operations — seeking to cut costs or curry favor with a new generation of readers — have curtailed or don’t bother with regular reporting on so-called “process” stories like city council meetings. At least Macpherson’s plan would have a report of council activities posted in a timely fashion.

Still, as a young journalist, I honed my reporting skills — and in the process, informed readers at several newspapers in Indiana (not India) — of the workings of our city and county councils and agencies. Legions of reporters similarly have spent hard time in locales nationwide, perched on wooden benches or plastic chairs in stuffy, fluorescent-lit chambers, recording and reporting on proposed tax hikes, street-paving plans and school board budgets. Those stories alerted readers to a host of ordinary but necessary aspects of daily life and not incidentally kept politicians and bureaucrats connected to constituencies — and perhaps reminded them that citizens were watching.

Does not the role of a “free press” include more than reporting accurately what happened? Does it not also include the freedom to ask questions — in person — about what did not? To fully report those local Indiana stories, it sometimes was important to ask why, with no open discussion, a vote was delayed. Occasionally the story might be more about the whispered comments made between two council members away from the microphone than about the recorded action.

An accurate account of a government meeting — whether written from a building down the street or one halfway around the globe — does have some value, of course, especially when the alternative is no story at all.

But surely the First Amendment’s provision for a free press counsels practitioners and product to be more than a transcription service.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail:

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