Edward Greenspon & Ivor Shapiro: Define journalists by what they do
In October 2016, La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé discovered police had been monitoring his communications and tracking his movements in an apparent effort to uncloak one of his sources. The uproar was such that within a year, Canada’s Parliament joined other nations in enacting a so-called shield law, conferring on journalists — and only journalists — special statutory rights to protect confidential sources.
The beneficiaries cheered their new right as a major step for press freedom, despite its delineation in law of who is and who is not a journalist for the purposes of the protection. The Canada Evidence Act limited the new privilege to those paid to produce information for “dissemination by the media” as part of their regular work.
A year on, the question of how, or whether, to demarcate who qualifies as a journalist has returned in louder, more insistent terms with the federal government’s pledge to introduce a tax credit rebating an unspecified percentage of the labour costs of newsrooms. While ample grounds exist for principled opposition to public money being spent on supporting journalism, those allergic to defining a journalist ignore the recent crossing of that Rubicon.
Though there certainly are better and worse ways to go about it, deciding who is a journalist for particular circumstances is neither novel nor overly vexing.
For starters, the mere existence of a definition does not infringe on anyone’s right to report and publish; it simply provides some with the advantage of a shield law or tax credit. Common sense suggests important and obvious differences between a city hall reporter working the beat day in and day out, on the one hand, and the Twitter feed @lorettatheprole, reportedly the originator of the dubious narrative that George Soros financed the refugee caravan that Donald Trump used to rally his base during the U.S. mid-terms.