Final Reflective Essay

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Each one of us in the project group has a significant tie to journalism, so our project was dear to all our hearts. We wanted to address the growing phenomenon of bloggers in journalism, but finding the right angle, position, and audience was less easy a process than we originally expected given our common bond. We each had our own beliefs and opinions about what journalism is and what it isn't. That question is ultimately what we tackled head-on in our project.

Bloggers, some of whom can be considered citizen journalists, are a growing force in journalism: breaking stories, providing commentary, or playing the same watchdog role over the media that the media performs over government and big business. In the face of such major change, it's fair to say that the key players in the field have questions and strong opinions about who qualifies as a journalist. How wide can the net defining journalism be legitimately cast before it snaps? And do bloggers themselves even want to be included in the definition? This tectonic shift will test how, or if, mainstream journalism can adapt and survive.

One of the controversies in the debate involves the extent to which the government is infringing upon the traditional practices of journalism. A critical weapon journalists use in order to gain information is the promise of confidentiality to those who provide facts that could, in their divulgence, pose a danger to the sources. And in the freedom to extend this promise also lies a protection for the journalist herself, who can preserve her work from others' eyes. In the furtherance of this objective, 31 states have journalism shield laws, which safeguard journalists from having to reveal confidential sources or work product because of a court's subpoena. But the federal government has no such law, leaving a vast jurisdictional loophole through which journalists can be compelled to divulge confidential information.

Congress did propose a shield law, but it has not yet passed. The first proposal extended protection to those who provided information to the masses – a definition that would allow bloggers and citizen journalists to invoke the law's powers. However, this proposal was criticized on a number of fronts, and the current bill specifically defines who is a journalist. In a marked departure from its predecessor, this definition excludes bloggers and citizen journalists from coverage by the law because it only protects journalist associated with established media. .

Our project is first and foremost a call to attention for citizen journalists. It is important that they realize that regardless of how they view themselves, they're performing acts of journalism, and as such should be protected by the same laws that protect mainstream journalists. Being excluded from these protections would be a major and significant step towards being excluded from the practice of journalism altogether. The fact that mainstream media strongly advocated for a federal shield law should be sufficiently telling about the importance of these protections for the effective practice of journalism. Even acknowledging that the kind of journalism bloggers perform is different in many ways from The New York Times or CNN experience, the activities protected by journalism shield laws are integral and irrefutable parts of journalism, whatever shape it takes. For this reason, we wanted to alert bloggers to the proposed law and to the dangers of being excluded from coverage.

We knew one of our main challenges in empathizing with bloggers would be their staunch independence and general opposition to the media. To overcome this, we focus on a set of activities that bloggers engage in that are considered journalism. The idea is to remove the emphasis from “brand-name” journalism and shift it to the activities that make up journalism. But bloggers' defiance and rebellion is the same thing that concerns members of the established news media. It is possible that including bloggers, who abide by no code of ethics or professionalism, as members of the field would compromise journalism's fundamental core: journalists have additional privileges because they have an additional burden: to search for truth. We had to be sure not to create an enemy of the established media, and instead, if possible, generate an ally. But appealing to mainstream journalists would be a new challenge. They are, after all, covered by the proposed legislation. Getting them to be active about the issue presents a new difficulty

But as we put together information for our project, we realized that the core of the problem really is that the government is assuming the power to define who can be considered a journalist: a dangerous and troubling precedent. Once there is a single law that contains a definition of a “journalist,” an exclusive category of people becomes responsible for performing the watchdog and investigative duties that are so crucial to a functioning democracy. But these duties are for the public to perform, and the creation of a privileged class negates the very essence of journalism. Upon realizing this, we found s second reason why it would be important for us to appeal to members of the mainstream media, and more importantly, we found a reason for them to listen. The issue of defining journalists isn't only important for those being excluded, but for all those who are interested in preserving the integrity of the establishment.

This is where the “buzz” component of the project helped us to conceive of a way to achieve a more primary objective in our project. We could use buzz strategies not just to convince people of the validity and importance of our point – in other words, not just as a public relations or advertising tool – but also to draw a new audience, different from our original target audience.

In the end, our project is a multimedia compilation of two podcasts and a video, all posted on a blog-format website called “Bloggers Beware.” The podcasts explain the basics of a journalism shield law and the concerns with the current proposal. They also elucidate some of the contributions citizen journalists make to the daily flow of information, and therefore help to show why it is so dangerous to exclude them from any category defining journalists. The video presents interviews with notable mainstream journalists, discussing the importance of the shield laws and, at times, their conception of what constitutes journalism.

It is this video that helps us achieve multiple purposes at once. One of the basic points we needed to make first was to validate the very premise for the entire discussion. So in our interviews with these successful mainstream journalists we asked them to talk about how the practices protected by the shield law allow them to perform their job effectively. Having journalists of this caliber discussing their experiences in investigative reporting is in and of itself a buzz strategy, and using the video medium facilitates that by allowing them to speak in their own words and in their own inflection, thereby making a connection with the viewer. We also felt that video would be a much more attractive format than simple audio. Our hope is that having well-known journalists commenting on these issues will attract bloggers, mainstream journalists, and additional interested parties alike.

We also deliberately chose the blog format – keeping our pages interactive and encouraging discussion among page visitors – because our target audience would obviously thrive in this medium. We also took steps to market ourselves within the blogger world and beyond, placing links on our website to blogger sites, journalism sites, and other sites of related interests.

In the end, our page is meant to spark a discussion among bloggers, with the hope that they can help convince themselves that it is in their interest to be active participants in the process of generating laws that deal with journalism. The vision is for the page to come alive with participation from all fronts. We provided information meant to spur action, including the text of the proposed shield bill and the names and contact links for the sponsoring legislators. But we did not intend for all information and encouragement to come from us. What we hoped is that our empathic approach, like appealing to our target audience by addressing its members on their terms and using their own format to communicate with them, would draw citizen journalists in long enough to become apprised of the issue and see the possible ramifications of what is going on. This would then allow them to engage in a conversation with each other. Our long-term goal is to prevent a narrow definition of journalism to become law, but our short-term method of achieving that is to simply raise awareness of the issue and its importance.

Group Project Reflections

The project was an experience on a number of fronts. It exposed all of us to unfamiliar technological resources and skills, for which we are grateful. Creating podcasts and videos is still the kind of activity where the learning curve is such that you must sacrifice a certain amount of efficiency and energy in the beginning before it becomes second-nature and worthwhile. As writers/attorneys/students, we found the process of compiling the information we wanted to put forth much easier than the transference of that information to our various technological media. It is a painstaking, and sometimes painful, task to create these podcasts and videos, although they are undeniably an invaluable resource in succeeding at “broadcasting” privately created projects like this. We appreciated this project for the sense of reach it gives. It is possible to tackle any issue, and with enough personal investment, the methods we learned in CyberOne can be optimal aids in garnering support, enciting activity, and, in essence, advocating for change.