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Nov. 2, 2009, 10 a.m.

Did newspapers and bloggers frame the shield law debate differently?

The recent news that the Senate reached a compromise on the passage of a federal shield law for journalists — a compromise that appears to extend shield coverage to bloggers and freelance journalists as well as more “traditional reporters — reminded me of some interesting findings in one of my unpublished academic papers. (The fact that the paper remains unpublished should be a warning that there was still some work to do in the analysis; nevertheless, I think it stands up.) The goal of the paper was to determine whether, during early media coverage of attempts to pass a journalistic shield law (May to December 2007), bloggers and traditional newspaper reporters framed the story differently, and if so, how.

I was interested in the framing of this story, but for a particular reason. I wanted to understand whether bloggers and journalists used their framing of the shield law debate to advance the interests of their own occupational groups. Passing a shield law inevitably involves defining who counts as a journalist, and bloggers and journalists would each seem to have an interest in drawing that line differently. Did conflicting occupational interest affect the way that bloggers and journalists framed the story? Did bloggers, for instance, focus more on the question of “who counted” as a journalist? Were they more likely to criticize bills that did not endorse a broad definition of who the shield law protected? Did traditional newspaper reporters do more day-to-day reporting on the story? Did they argue that the law should not cover blogs? And so on.

What makes this paper so interesting was that the results were a little different than I expected, but in an intriguing way. As I wrote in the paper:

Surprisingly, bloggers were more likely to frame their coverage of the congressional debate in terms of daily political and legislative developments than the mainstream press. While they were also more likely to raise questions about who would be covered by the proposed shield, the differences in coverage of this topic were not statistically signifigant; bloggers and journalists both talked about the scope of the shield law. Traditional print publications, on the other hand, were more likely to focus on the recent history of jailing journalists and to retell heroic “war stories” from journalism’s golden days.

In other words:

— The blogs actually did more reporting on this story than the newspapers did.

— Both newspapers and bloggers engaged in an equal amount of “opinion mongering.”

— Newspapers did not “discriminate” against bloggers when they discussed and reported on whom the shield would cover.

— Newspapers engaged in substantively more retrospective myth building in both their reporting and commentary. They talked about themselves as “agents of democracy,” intimated that democracy would be under threat if the law was not passed, and portrayed themselves as an imperiled professional group.

What does this all mean? As I read it, newspapers were trying to advance their own institutional position, but not through “biased” coverage of the scope of the shield law. Their coverage, in this regard, was scrupulously fair. Rather, they puffed themselves up and ignored everyone else. As I wrote in the paper:

…the narrative of threat, combined with the retelling of heroic stories from journalism’s professional past, lends greater rhetorical weight to the mainstream media’s argument that it, primarily, is in need of shield protection.

And this is what makes this old study, I think, relevant to today. In the past few years, as newspapers’ economic fortunes have steadily declined, they have been more and more likely to emphasize their special role in America’s democratic system. (For the moment, I’m not making any argument about whether or not these claims are true. They may very well be. I’m just pointing them out.) The origins of this increasing tendency to emphasize the special democratic function of newspapers might be seen in these early debates about the federal shield law.

Photo by Jens Cramer used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2009, 10 a.m.
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