Something happened April 19 that could dramatically affect the standards by which news is gathered in this country.
For those not in the know:
On April 19, Gawker Media-owned tech blog Gizmodo published startling photos and commentary of a purported ‘iPhone 4G’ prototype they’d obtained.
Apple is rumored to have been working on the latest update to their iPhone line, but to actually see one dissected prior to launch was unheard of.
Gizmodo initially had no way of verifying whether the device was a genuine iPhone prototype or not, but editors suggested efforts had been made to conceal the phone’s new features, because it was apparently encased in a plastic shell made to resemble an older model iPhone.
Now, Gizmodo claims they’d obtained the phone complete with a back-story. Their source described finding it in a bar, fiddling with it and even attempting to contact Apple to return it. Due to Apple’s famously secret operating policies, however, service representatives the source spoke with didn’t believe him, he said. Then he sold the device to Gizmodo for $5,000.
Editors claim the phone was disabled remotely by the time they received it, but they dissected it anyway. Eventually, Apple laid claim to the phone prototype and it was returned.
Fast forward to April 23. A search warrant was served on Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s house while he was out to dinner. Police officers seized several computers and a server, among other tech paraphernalia.
Chen’s Gawker-provided legal counsel is claiming the search was invalid because the blogger is covered under California’s state shield law, a law designed to protect journalists from being forced to reveal sources or unpublished news materials.
So at this point, several burning questions arise: Should Chen be considered a journalist and therefore fall under shield law protections? And what effect will this determination have on journalism as an industry?
Let’s just assume for a moment that Chen is a journalist, a journalist who paid $5,000 for a scoop. Even sleazy journalists are still journalists (see: National Enquirer qualifying to be considered for Pulitzer Prizes).
Under O’Grady v. Superior Court (2006), Chen could be classified as a journalist. The ruling stated: “It seems likely that the legislature intended the phrase ‘periodical publication’ to include all ongoing, recurring news publications while excluding non-recurring publications such as books, pamphlets, flyers and monographs. We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes ‘legitimate journalis[m].’ The Shield Law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what [O’Grady] did here.”
Ironically, O’Grady also concerned Apple suing a blogger to reveal a source.
If O’Grady were to be applied to Chen’s case, and the state of California can’t prove the Gizmodo editor knew the phone was stolen rather than abandoned, then he would certainly be covered by the shield law and thusly be protected from civil action by Apple.
The wider implications will fall on the journalism industry as a whole. Ethical guidelines would seem to guard against paying for a scoop, no matter how juicy it might be. But that’s the problem with all of this new media saturating the news cycle. These institutions are not traditionally bound by the same standards journalists are.
I’m not saying news coming out of new media is lacking in substance or content, but I am saying they’re beginning to walk a thin line. If bloggers want to be afforded the same protection as journalists, I would suggest they’d need to agree to be bound by the same rules.
Journalism is about seeking and reporting truth for the public good, but not at the expense of long-held values in gathering that truth.
Along this vein, I think it’s time journalism was qualified as a profession. Any contributor would be welcome, granted they agree to follow a set of ethical rules set out by a national organization such as the Society of Professional Journalists.
I’m sad to report however, ideas of journalistic ethics only seem to see the light of day when somebody doesn’t follow them.
So as the line between opinion and the truth continues to blur, I think it is time for the journalism industry to pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps and get organized. It’s the only way the truth will prevail.