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Nathan's column: I'm looking for a definition

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opinion Rosemount, 55024
Rosemount Town Pages
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Rosemount Minnesota P.O. Box 192 / 312 Oak St. 55024

There is a bit of a debate going on right now about what, exactly, constitutes a journalist. Does some guy with a blog and an axe to grind deserve to be included in the same category as, say, me? Should I be mentioned in the same breath as someone who works for the New York Times?

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Where, in other … um … sorry. I was distracted for a second. I just got an urgent email from the Times editorial board. All it said was, “No!”

But, back to the column.

Where, in other words, do we draw the line between a professional news gatherer and someone who stands on the street shouting stuff at anyone who will listen? Do you need a byline to consider yourself a legitimate member of the Fourth Estate, or just a sandwich board and a Sharpie — or the digital equivalent, which is basically a Facebook page.

For what it’s worth, questions of legitimacy aside, I’ve never found street-corner shouting an effective form of news delivery. People don’t seem to appreciate it. Even if you wear a snap-brim cap and shout “Extry! Extry!”

There is a reason for this debate that goes beyond traditional reporters trying to guard their turf from every person with a camera phone and a Twitter account. There are questions going through Congress about who should be protected by a long-proposed shield law that would clarify the situations in which journalists are allowed to keep private the names of anonymous sources.

The law wouldn’t provide blanket protections. There might be situations where the name of a source is determined to be a matter of national security. Or maybe theyhave a really great banana bread recipe. But the law would strengthen protections for reporters and media organizations. 

Minnesota, it’s worth noting, already has such a shield law. Which is why it’s so hard to find really good banana bread here.

Sen. Dick Durbin recently took a stab at defining journalism in an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times. He described a journalist as someone who “gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined ‘medium’.”

It’s a start, although that definition might be a bit broad. Do we really want to create a pool so big it includes both reporters embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan and the guy who compiles pictures of surprised-looking puppies for BuzzFeed?

Related question: Is this column really solid footing from which to attack someone for not being a serious journalist?

Hold on. The Times editorial board just emailed me again. It’s the same message.

Hey, at least they’re reading.

There are legitimate reasons to protect legitimate journalists. There are important stories that won’t be told unless a source can be guaranteed protection. Think Watergate, or the details of whatever’s going on in Justin Bieber’s dating life.

According to a May report by the group Reporters Without Borders, the Obama administration has prosecuted six whistleblowers since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act. That’s twice as many times as the law had been used in similar situations prior to 2009. The group argued that what it described as witch hunts violated “the principles of the First Amendment by directly impacting the work of journalists, who are suspected of endangering the country’s security when in fact they are just doing what their job requires them to do.”

There’s no question journalists come in many forms. I’d never worked for a newspaper or even taken a journalism class before I started working for this newspaper. I learned about writing in school and everything else I learned as I went.

Am I a journalist, then? Is the guy who posted a Vine video of the Boston Marathon bombing? Or someone who posts animated gifs on a Tumblr blog?

It’s hard to believe anybody would go too hard after the author of “Kittens who think they’re people!” But you never know. Cats are mysterious.

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Nathan Hansen
Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.
(651) 460-6606
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