What qualifies someone as a journalist?
That's become a big question in recent months, in particular following the revalations of NSA wiretapping and the seizure of various Associated Press telephone records as part of a federal investigation over apparent leaks by government officials.
It's a topic that came up during a session on the Freedom of Information Act set up as part of the recent West Virginia Press Association convention at Oglebay.
For those who don't recall, several months back it was revealed the U.S. Department of Justice had acquired telephone records of various Associated Press offices and reporters.
These records included offices which had not been open for years, individuals who had not been employed by the AP for some time, active office numbers and even reporters' personal phone numbers.
The seizure was all part of an investigation on an apparent leak concerning a CIA investigation in Yemen, which the AP was preparing to report.
The records seizure was done without notifying the AP, which is a clear violation of the Justice Department's own rules.
Now, Congress is discussing a proposed national shield law, which would provide some protection to journalists when it comes to such governmental "inquiries."
The problem is, it seems Congress can't agree on who or what should be considered a journalist.
Under the proposed shield law, a journalist is defined as anyone who gathers information with the intent to disseminate it to the public.
This would definitely include your traditional journalists, such as myself, who work for a professional news agency or business, providing a product which includes news for our local residents.
So, under that definition, a journalist is any reporter, producer, editor, etc. who works for a newspaper, television station or network, radio station or network, or other recognized news service. OK.
It also would include any blogger, freelance individual, social media guru or anyone else who goes out into their community, and finds a way to "report" on what they see or hear.
In other words, the shild law would extend to pretty much anyone out there who makes it a habit of using social media, online outlets, newsletters or other means to provide "news," whether they are being paid for it or simply doing it for fun.
The shield law could, technically, even extend to the folks at Wikileaks who make it a point to find ways to secretly gather information and publicize it.
It could include hackers who acquire the information, even if it is through illegal means, and post it online.
It even could include any of you who decide to simply set up a blog or a Facebook page and post about things you see or hear around town, even if you don't have all of the information to paint the complete picture.
You see, that's the big difference between professional journalists and the everyday blogger. We have to be as accurate as possible in our reporting. If we get something wrong, we're held accountable for it.
We can't simply make up our own "facts" or report blatant lies.
We can't sit in our homes, listen to the chatter of a police scanner, for example, and think we have the entire story. We make phone calls, visit the scene, and talk to those involved.
We hear a rumor and we follow up on it. And if we can't find anything concrete to back it up, we can't report it.
We have to follow the laws just as everyone else does.
Most states, including West Virginia, have their own version of a shield law. This is a good thing when it comes to issues that will go before local magistrates, circuit courts or even a state supreme court.
But what about something in the federal court system?
There definitely is a need for a federal law. Recent events should be enough to tell us that.
Now, if lawmakers can just agree on a simple definition.
(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)