N.J. judge revives blogger vs. journalist debate

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Union County, N.J., prosecutors demanded Tina Renna give them “the names of 16 government officials who she accused online of misusing county generators after Hurricane Sandy,” Lilly Chapa reports. Renna claimed privilege, and Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy has ordered a hearing “to further discuss whether Renna is a journalist as defined under the state shield law,” Chapa writes.

Renna’s blog The County Watchers chronicles county employees who make six-figure incomes, challenges the county’s finances and posts videos from meetings. Prosecutors, Chapa writes, “have argued that Renna cannot be defined as a journalist because she was involved in politics in the past and the blog is biased and often critical of the Union County government.”

“I’m a journalist,” Renna told Chapa. “If I can’t protect my sources I’m out of business. I wouldn’t want people to give me information that would put them in danger, and I don’t see why they’d want to do that either.”

The (Newark) Star-Ledger editorial board supported Renna, writing:

New Jersey applies its shield law liberally, and it shouldn’t hinge on whether someone is a professional, nonpartisan or even reliable journalist. It’s a functional test: Does Renna gather information that’s in the public interest and publish it? Yes. What’s at issue here is whether she’s connected to the news media.

That’s the challenge: If we let any blogger be covered by the shield law, so many people will claim the privilege that the exception could swallow up the rule. A line must be drawn, but the courts haven’t identified one. So it depends on the facts of each case.

In this case, they conclude, “Yes, she can be a little wild, she’s not the same as a professional reporter and she drives local officials crazy. But part of democracy is putting up with Tina Renna.”

Related: Crystal Cox was a recent focus of blogger-vs.-journalist scuffles: “most journalists will not want to include Cox in their camp,” Kashmir Hill wrote in 2011 (Forbes) | Debate about Crystal Cox blogging case misses a key legal point (Poynter)

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