Risks of bloggers being regarded as citizen journalists?

Given the more stringent test the press must pass when faced with a defamation claim, bloggers should be cautious before claiming the controversial title “citizen journalists”.

The tremendous increase in the number of blogs in recent years has, to a degree, given rise to a call for bloggers to be recognised as an extension of or part of the press. After all, so one argument goes, bloggers report on events, express opinions on those events and otherwise conduct themselves as pseudo-journalists. Therefore they should be granted the same recognition and access as the press. To a degree this argument has merit and there are a number of bloggers who function as journalists, often despite not being formally trained as such. Bloggers often specialise in specific areas of interest and may be in a better position to report on relevant issues. We have even seen tremendously popular and effective group blogs emerge on the Web which arguably produce more relevant and engaging news than traditional media. These sites include The Huffington Post and Om Malik’s network of blogs. Sites like these present high quality content and are frequently not bound by the production schedules that hamper traditional media production so they are more nimble and report on current events faster than their traditional counterparts.

The one challenge facing these sites is that their bloggers may be unfamiliar with the norms and rules that govern and guide journalists. These norms and rules deal with fact checking, multiple sources and so on. These norms and rules serve a valuable purpose and, theoretically, help keep stories objective and accurate. The press is position to exercise a fair degree of influence on the public in general and this position of influence was one of the factors guiding the courts’ approach to the press’ liability for such things as defamation. As blogs become more prominent and influential themselves (in many respects blogs are more influential than the traditional press), the same considerations would surely apply to bloggers. Bloggers could be found liable for defamation where they are negligent in their reporting and this means that bloggers should take the same (if not more) care as their traditional journalist counterparts in researching, writing and publishing their stories.

Newspapers who have bloggers posting to their websites are already blurring the lines between bloggers as amateur writers and professional or quasi-professional journalists. In these case there is likely to be little doubt that these bloggers will be held to the same test as the journalists they share the spotlight with. On the other extreme will be those bloggers who post purely for personal reasons and express personal opinions. Hopefully we will see a test emerge from our courts to cater for the range of influence bloggers exert and the tests they should meet when determining liability.

One thing to bear in mind is that the law of defamation is probably well developed enough to address this issue and what we need is a more creative application of the law to the new circumstances bloggers present.

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