The never-ending debate as to whether bloggers are journalists (and therefore entitled to some of the protections afforded the press) has surfaced in Hawaii.
Malia Zimmerman, former mainstream journalist turned “online journal” editor, has been hit with a subpoena to reveal her sources in stories on the Kaloko dam tragedy last March. The subpoena references both her reporting at Hawaii Reporter as well as information she provided to ABC for its own segment on the “20/20″ newsmagazine.
Notably, Zimmerman insists she’s not a blogger, and that Hawaii Reporter is not a blog. It’s a distinction that she and I discussed as part of a Honolulu Community Media Council panel discussion a few years ago. Commenting on the subpoena, in fact, she apparently dismisses (other) bloggers. The Star-Bulletin says that Zimmerman considers herself “a legitimate journalist, not just some hack who offers half-baked commentary on the news of the day.” (Though that appears to be a characterization of her remarks, rather than a direct quote.)
Her critics, of course, similarly dismiss bloggers, and cite the usual slippery-slope arguments in giving them press protections. Protections, it should be noted, that are largely theoretical here, as Hawaii has no “shield law” for journalists.
Now, I concede that Zimmerman can call herself and Hawaii Reporter whatever she wants. But given the format of her site, its clear idealogical bent, and the high ratio of opinion pieces in its content mix, it’s obvious why most conclude she’s a blogger. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Frankly, when it comes to definitions, there’s a more fundamental question here. Are journalists and “media outlets” defined by the format, presentation, and means of publication? Or simply by what they do?
Zimmerman may publish online, but she’s not a random hack who just fired up her browser one day and decided to “be the media.” She has substantial journalism background, and she doesn’t just say she’s a journalist… she conducts herself as a journalist. And she definitely did so in the Kaloko case, researching, interviewing, and reporting her findings.
And as bloggers make a play for the role of traditional journalists, traditional journalists are moving into blogging… Hawaii journalists included.
One of the better overviews of the case comes from Doug White:
There is a middle ground between “all bloggers are journalists” and “no bloggers are journalists.” Like Mr. [Gerald] Kato of UH, Zimmerman herself says that the medium of publication should not matter. I agree. Show me a “journalist” who does not publish in a medium consisting of “a mix of fact and opinion.”
This issue is one still being debated in courtrooms across the country. But this case hits close to home for Hawaii bloggers, and bears watching.