The gray area between student and professional

What makes a journalist? At what point are you a journalist and at what point are you something else? More importantly, are journalism school students journalists? And if so, should they be afforded the same protections as working reporters?

Retired j-school professor Don Gibb would say that one becomes a journalist the second he or she enters journalism school, and advises young students to “look in the mirror and say, I AM A JOURNALIST.”

I’ve considered myself a full-fledged journalist since the day I filed my first story many years ago, and I can’t see a time when I will cease to believe this. Though I am still finishing my degree, when I am doing “real world” work (i.e., work intended for eyes other than mine and my professor’s), I fully expect to be treated with all of the respect and protection as a tenured reporter. But there are a few prosecutors in Illinois that think differently.

At Northwestern University, professor David Protess runs the Medill Innocence Project, a decade-old project that sees students investigating suspected wrongful convictions. Over the years his students have uncovered information that has contributed to the freeing of 11 innocent men, and they think they have the evidence to free another. However, local prosecutors have subpoenaed the students’ notebooks, emails and grades, among other things, in an attempt to show that the students were pressured to solve the case in order to do well in the class.

According to a post from Deborah Potter at Advancing the Story, “That kind of information would typically be protected by the state shield law but the prosecutors claim the students aren’t journalists, so they’re not covered.

“The case raises concerns for all students who do ‘real world’ journalism as part of their course work.” Potter goes on to suggest that shield laws be brought up to date, especially in the age of citizen journalism when “anyone can be a journalist.”

No such laws exist in Canada, but J-Source Law Editor Dean Jobb posted a paper earlier in the year that argues Canada needs to adopt a shield law to allow journalists to protect confidential sources.

I would wager that by the second or third year of a journalism school program (if not earlier), many students have found themselves in particularly sticky situations involving touchy sources (I know I have). It’s easy to fall back on the old, “I’m just a kid,” thought process, but now’s the time to ask yourself an important question: Are you a student or are you a journalist?