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Who gets to be a journalist?

Updated: April 28, 2021

Some defendants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots are claiming they were members of the media, so they shouldn’t be charged with crimes

Before class (10 minutes)

Read “Some Jan. 6 defendants try to use journalism as riot defense” by The Associated Press

Class time needed

20 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Summarize the different labels placed on newsgathering personnel
  • Compare the different descriptions of working and professional journalists
  • Formulate an opinion on who gets to be a journalist.

Issue overview

The masses of people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are being arrested and charged with federal crimes related to trespassing, assault on law enforcement and destruction of property. USA Today has a complete rundown of all the people arrested and charged so far.

But at least eight of those people are claiming they weren’t doing anything illegal because they were journalists covering the event.

As the AP writes, the insurrectionists “created a trove of self-incriminating evidence, thoroughly documenting their actions and words in videos and social media posts. Now some of the camera-toting people in the crowd are claiming they were only there to record history as journalists, not to join a deadly insurrection.”

Consider this passage in a recent Yale Law School legal blog: “What makes a reporter a reporter? That question used to be simple — once, a reporter was someone who worked for a newspaper or a magazine. Then it became someone who worked for a newspaper or a radio station. Then television stations were added. Now, in the age of the Internet, anyone with an iPhone can call themselves a reporter.”

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think those people who are claiming they shouldn’t be charged because they were acting as journalists have a strong case? Why or why not?
  2. How would the actions of traditional reporters have differed from those in the crowd who are now claiming they were reporting and not participating?
  3. There is no licensing or certification requirement for a person to call themselves a journalist, like there are for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, etc. Should there be? What would it look like?
  4. Does your thinking about what constitutes a journalist change when considering opinion or slanted news coverage? Is that still journalism?
  5. What value, if any, do citizen journalists bring to the news ecosystem? Where do they fit in, if at all?

For further reading