Journalists, critics and bloggers swallowed hard when a federal jury ruled recently that a blogger had defamed a central Oregon attorney and awarded the attorney $2.5 million.
Many folks noted that the award will have a "chilling effect" in journalism circles, and as Oregonian reporter Jeff Manning noted in his story Dec. 7, the case "raises questions about press protections and the nature of the press itself in the Internet age."
In case you missed the story, a self-anointed "investigative blogger" named Crystal Cox went on a bender to ruin the reputation of an attorney appointed by the courts to manage the assets of a company that went bankrupt.
Cox accused the attorney, Kevin Padrick, of "bribery, tax fraud, money laundering, payoffs and theft," and posted numerous invectives about the attorney on the Internet, according to The New York Times.
The leverage that Cox brought to bear wasn't so much the ability to blog -- anyone with a computer can do that -- but that she was able to use the magic of the Internet to cut a wide swath of accusations.
In other words, Cox had the know-how to link her vendetta with anyone's search for this particular attorney: Scan the Web and you get page after page of posts that the attorney is a scoundrel.
The point is, the blogger appears to have created the story and, according to The New York Times, the attorney has never been disciplined or investigated, and had acted in good faith.
Yet a rogue blogger was able to float stories on the Internet -- stories that could not be substantiated -- that harmed someone. Padrick said his business fell by at least half once Cox launched her campaign.
Back in my day as a working journalist, we had the protection of the institution: My editor fought hard for reporters, sometimes losing advertising accounts to merchants angered by stories. But we had a code about integrity and truth-telling. And no one -- I mean no one -- I worked with would have dreamed of inventing a story.
So how can someone claim to be a journalist with the aim of ferreting out the truth when, in fact, she has stitched a reality from creations of her mind?
How can we distinguish a trained journalist from an independent blogger with an ax to grind? Journalism schools teach ethics, but today's bloggers can bypass such training simply by grabbing the Internet bullhorn.
Gone are the gatekeepers who would fact-check a story before it saw the light of day in hard copy. We shouldered a responsibility for what we wrote and considered the effect the newspaper had on the community.
Many of today's bloggers lack such feelings of responsibility and yet yearn for the protection of free speech. I argue that the ability to access media channels carries with it grave responsibilities and those responsibilities must be linked with an ethical foundation.
When someone dons the cloak of journalist without the added burden of shouldering some ethical responsibility, the results damage us all.
Cynthia-Lou Coleman teaches and researches communication at Portland State University and writes a blog on science communication at nativescience.wordpress.com.