Last year, prosecutors in Union County sought to force blogger Tina Renna to reveal the names of 16 county officials Renna claimed had used county generators for personal use after Hurricane Sandy. Not surprisingly, the case landed in court.
The case is noteworthy because the legal arguments centered around whether Renna is a journalist and deserved the protections of New Jersey’s shield law, considered to be among the toughest in the country.
That is the heart of the matter: In today’s digital age, as more and more “acts of journalism’’ are committed by citizens as well as traditional journalists, it’s harder and harder to know who is a journalist.
Thus our not-to-be-missed NJ SPJ event: Who is a journalist now? The panel discussion and question-and-answer session at the Montclair Public Library runs from 1:30-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17. The event is free and open to the public.
The line-up includes an impressive list of speakers: award-winning author Jonathan Alter; state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg; First Amendment expert Thomas Healy; Merrill Brown, director of Montclair State’s new School of Communication and Media; Peter Szekely, vice president of the Deadline Club, our sister organization in New York; Star-Ledger reporter Ronni Reich; Heather Taylor, communications director of the Citizens Campaign; and Dr. Uchenna Ekwo, former chair of the Nigeria Union of Journalists.
We’re expecting a free-ranging discussion that will take us not only into the court room, but also into questions about journalism vs. public relations, the very real commercial pressures that affect the business and the nitty-gritty of how we do our jobs.
But the law is always useful for starting a discussion about where the lines are drawn.
It’s at the core of revived discussions about a new federal shield bill, which was approved by a Senate committee in September. The campaign picked up steam in the wake revelations this past spring that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of 20 journalists from the Associated Press and that Fox News reporter James Rosen was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in court papers stemming from a 2010 leak investigation.
Which brings us back to Tina Renna.
In an April ruling, Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy said her decision to quash the grand jury subpoena that would have forced Renner to name names was based on three criteria: whether Renna was connected to an entity that is “sufficiently similar’’ to traditional news media sources; whether Renner’s purpose was to gather or disseminate news; and that whether Renner obtained her materials during the course of professional newsgathering activities.
Even though Cassidy acknowledged that the quality of Renna’s writing was “not akin to that of a professional print news reporter or a professional blogger,’’ she concluded Renner met the definition of journalist, and was therefore entitled to the protection of the New Jersey shield law.
In other words, there’s plenty to talk about.
See you on Nov. 17!