Citizen Journalists Should Not Be Shut Out By Government

Stories exposing drunk teacher union contract provisions, fake tea party came from alternative news sources

Scrutiny and sunshine are great ways of keeping government officials honest.

But the effort doesn't come without occasional conflict. That's especially true today given the advances in technology and ease with which citizen journalists can report, write and publish their own work.

So it comes as little surprise that there are efforts in Michigan and in Washington, D.C., to try to define who is a journalist.

In Michigan, House Bill 4770 has a provision in it that limits who can access public information by specifically defining the term, journalist

Senate Bill 987 at the national level, is a direct attempt at playing Big Brother, complete with the Orwellian title: the “Free Flow of Information Act.”

But calling something a rose does not make it smell like one.

Michigan House Bill 4770 was introduced by Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, a Democrat from Huntington Woods, with four Republican and four Democrat cosponsors.

The bill would amend part of the state's vehicle code and place restrictions on people who want access to police reports after a car crash. Ostensibly, this is to keep "ambulance chasing" lawyers from gaining access to car crash victims by using public documents to track them down. 

But it goes far beyond that when it defines who is privy to public documents. Employees of radio and television stations that are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission are OK. As are employees of newspapers, so long as they work for a publication that includes "stories of general interest to the public, is used primarily for the dissemination of news, and may be published in hard copy form or on the Internet."

While I'm sure the effort is well intentioned, it is arbitrary and inappropriate for the government to define journalists, especially using standards that mostly disregard how, and from whom, people get their news today.

Alternative sources of news have been responsible for major scoops that helped shape local and national issues. 

Freedom of Information Act requests have helped Michigan Capitol Confidential, for example, break stories that would otherwise have been ignored by the traditional media. The Bay City teachers' union contract that allows teachers to show up drunk to work five times before getting fired (and sell drugs to students twice) showed voters last year what kinds of union contract provisions would have been protected by Proposal 2. 

Thousands of day care and home-based caregivers in Michigan who were forced into unions had their stories told on these pages and eventually were able to free themselves from having to pay union dues thanks to their stories being told. 

Blogger Jason Gillman, who wouldn't qualify as a journalist under the proposed Michigan bill, was the first to report on the fake tea party in Oakland County that led to the sentencing of a Democratic Party official.

And don't forget about Hangar42, the Grand Rapids area land deal that was supposed to house a massive movie studio, but a Mackinac Center for Public Policy investigation led to the Attorney General charging the buyer of the property with a felony.

Still not convinced? Consider two scenarios:

A 20-something sits in a cubicle filtering through dozens of press releases sent blindly throughout the day by public relations people hoping to get some ink for a client. The newly minted journalism school graduate is responsible for filling the local community brief section of the paper and shuffles through dozens of pitches announcing such things as the local bingo champion, the national cat show coming to town and the library lecture series featuring the latest reality TV actor. 

Is that person a journalist?

In a house nearby, a citizen who regularly attends school board and city council meetings reads through a Freedom of Information Act request that was filed to see how tax dollars were spent on a public project. In the pages of information he or she received there’s evidence of wrongdoing. With documents to prove that public money was misspent, a story is written and posted online. 

Is that person a journalist?

That's not to suggest that everyone who writes stories and posts them online is honest, forthright and looking out for the public's best interest. The Internet is filled with bad actors pushing bad information.

Readers can filter through the nonsense. They can change the channel; they can turn off the radio; or they can move on to a new webpage.

Government officials may not like the bright lights shined upon them by people or organizations that might otherwise have had no outlet to publish their reports, but that doesn't give them the right to take rights away from others.