Journalist or not?

I’m 23, firmly in the new media generation.  I blog. I Tweet. I use Facebook. However, I still believe in the fundamental ethics of journalism.

I saw a story about the new iPhone prototype on Gizmodo, a technology blog. I thought it was a pretty cool story, one that they have (rightfully) hyped up tremendously. In brief, an Apple engineer was partying for his 27th birthday at a bar and accidentally left the iPhone at the bar. A guy took it, trying to find its rightful owner, calling Apple and doing what he could.

Then Gizmodo found out about the story and…

Weeks later, Gizmodo got it for $5,000 in cash.

With it technically being a blog, I frowned upon it, but didn’t think too much of it. Then I read yesterday that the editor of the site — Jason Chen — had his home searched, with authorities saying that he might be in trouble for purchasing stolen goods.

Gizmodo wrote about the seizure yesterday afternoon, posting all of the legal paperwork. What does Gaby Darbyshire, the C.O.O. of Gawker (Gizmodo’s parent company, who also runs the sports blog Deadspin), use in defense of Chen?

Journalism shield laws.

Darbyshire quotes section 1070 of California’s Evidence Code, kind of forgetting that, you know, Gizmodo paid for something they knew didn’t rightfully belong to the seller anyway. Darbyshire also points out that the shield laws also apply to online journalists, citing a 2006 case, which I can accept.

“Jason is a journalist who works full time for our company,” Darbyshire wrote to a detective on the case. “Abundant examples of his work are available on the web. He works from home, which is his defacto newsroom, and all equipment used by him there  is used for the purposes of his employment with us.”

I don’t believe, in this case, that Chen is a journalist. The Society of Professional Journalists has an ethics code, something I hope and believe most journos at least try to live up to. Paying for sources? Nah. Not on there.

Under “Seek Truth and Report It:”

— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

Under “Act Independently:”

— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

By paying $5,000 for the iPhone, I believe that Chen and Gizmodo have waived their status as “journalists” and are not able to be protected under California’s shield laws. Checkbook journalism is not something new to Gawker. Its CEO, Nick Denton, is embarrassingly proud of it.

@kensweet Yes, we’re proud practitioners of checkbook journalism. Anything for the story!

It’s becoming sadly more common, and I almost feel that in the public’s eyes, it’s making the “old guard” traditional media even more irrelevant.  I don’t think people care HOW news was broken, just that it broke. Whether a journalist was out pounding pavement to get a key source to speak or a blogger offered up a few C-notes, I get the feeling that readers just feel “Well, I got the information either way, and I didn’t have to pay for it, so it’s all good.”

Celebrity gossip blog TMZ pays for tips (this was most notable in the case of Michael Jackson’s death, as the website beat everybody on that story), but its editor, Harvey Levin, says he doesn’t pay for stories, as has been widely rumored. In the Jaycee Dugard case last year, one UK tabloid offered to pay off one of the neighbors for exclusive information. Apparently, many other media outlets offered to pay, too. It’s sad.

This is a dangerous precedent to set.

So, to get back to the main point… do you feel that Jason Chen, in this case, acted as a journalist and should be protected by shield laws?

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One thought on “Journalist or not?

  1. I think the problem here is whether or not the device counts as “stolen.” By their account (assuming they’re telling the truth; I see no reason to suspect otherwise), the device was left at a bar and someone else found it, and then sold it to Gawker. That doesn’t seem like “theft” to me, though I suppose the law may view it differently (if so, the law is stupid, but that’s another kettle of fish). Still, I think it’s pretty ridiculous that it appears other people may face legal consequences for profiting off the carelessness of APPLE’S employee.

    Guess what, Apple: One of your guys messed up, the media pounced and did things that you didn’t like; namely, tell other people that — OMG! You’re developing an updated version of an existing device!!!.

    Boo-freaking-hoo. Deal with it. You leave prototypes lying around, or lose them, people aren’t obligated to return them…or to hold back from posting pictures of them on the internet, which is what Apple’s really mad about, not the device itself. You screwed up; learn from your mistake and change your product-testing (or employee trusting) process next time. Don’t try and foist off responsibility on other people and organizations for your blunder. Sure, Gawker took advantage of the situation, but it doesn’t appear to be illegal, or hell, even unethical…unless ethics now involves making sure companies are good and ready to tell the nation what they’re doing behind closed doors.

    As far as I can tell, Gawker did nothing wrong, other than beat mega-corporate Apple at its own hype game. That’s not a criminal offense. And I can’t help but think that if this was done by a media empire — WIRED, Newsweek, The Washington Post — instead of a blog, there wouldn’t have been police busting down apartment doors.

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