Editorial: Being on social media doesn’t make you a journalist

Last week, the Washington Supreme Court tried to figure out who counts as a journalist in the digital age. It concluded that just having a camera and a YouTube channel isn’t enough, at least not under state law.

The case involved a YouTuber who had a confrontation with sheriff’s deputies in Pierce County. After the incident, he filed a Public Records Act request for the names, birthdates, photographs and other information for all deputies and personnel working then.

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Normally many of those records are off-limits to the public to protect law enforcement from harassment, retaliation and potential identity theft. There’s an exception, though. Members of the “news media,” as defined in state law, may receive the records.

Although news media interests generally have opposed making public employees’ dates of birth private for anyone, lawmakers gave the press that privileged access because they were persuaded that professional journalists could be trusted to use the personal information responsibly. The press becomes a stand-in for the general public. A news organization might, for example, need a birthdate and photo to check previous employment of an official embroiled in a scandal or to verify that a law enforcement officer was involved in an incident.

The YouTuber insisted he was an “investigative journalist” who counted as a member of the news media based on his “Libertys Champion” YouTube channel. Officials disagreed, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. There the majority ruled against his being a member of the news media. The court’s analysis focused primarily on the fact that he was a lone wolf, not a member of a news organization.

The nature of news and journalism is evolving rapidly. Livestreamers wear “Press” armbands while attending and participating in protests. People take to Twitter to announce what is happening at local government hearings. Others operate websites that report on focused topics, like the helpful Seattle City Council Insight.

The Legislature tried to draw a line in the fuzzy continuum between the solo YouTuber or tweeter howling at perceived injustice, and traditional newspapers and television news organizations that have been the backbone of a vibrant local free press for decades.

Yet wherever that line falls, there will be tough edge cases. Most people would trust a trained plumber to fix a leaky pipe flooding their basement over someone who just has a wrench and says he knows pipes. The wrench doesn’t make the plumber, and social media doesn’t make the journalist. Bona fide members of the news media are trained and follow professional standards and ethics.

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The YouTuber in this case would have a hard time convincing any dispassionate viewer that he’s a real journalist, but there are a lot of people doing serious journalism today who don’t work for a news organization. Figuring out how to accommodate those journalists remains a challenge. On the narrowest of readings, the court’s decision might have excluded too many of them.

We look forward, then, to future cases or legislative debate that further clarifies who and what counts as news media so that modern, legitimate local free press can thrive.