Today’s celebration of the 220th birthday of the Bill of Rights comes after three months of journalist arrests and press suppression in cities across America — the most recent of which happened just this week. When the NYPD arrested a group of photographers, live video-streamers and other citizen journalists at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City earlier this week, it rekindled a long smoldering debate over who is a journalist.
The people arrested were all aligned with the Occupy movement, with some serving on the Occupy Wall Street media team, but based on videos and first-hand accounts they were primarily there to bear witness and cover the events. In fact, over the course of the Occupy movement, in many cases when police kept other journalists at arm’s length, the only video and reports coming out of Occupy raids were coming from these kinds of citizen journalists.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The question “who is a journalist” has been raised often over the past two months as reports of press suppression and journalist arrests have spread from city to city. See, for example, the debates here, here and here. I’ve already described my views on this in relation to my own work monitoring journalist arrests at Occupy events: “I decided early on that I wasn’t going to quibble about who is a journalist, and who isn’t. My goal was to account for anyone who was clearly committing acts of journalism when they were arrested.”
But, tangled up in the debates over who is a journalist are very real legal debates about who is given press credentials and what protections those press credentials provide. In general, the press credentialing system is broken — a poor fit for the media landscape we find ourselves in. The courts have already ruled that, as more people gain access to the tools of reporting, “news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.” If the question is not who is a journalist, but rather, what are the acts of journalism that should be protected, then we need to rethink what a “press credential” actually is. Continue reading