Michigan Considers Law to Register Journalists

This article was updated on June 1, 2010. Please see the editor's note at the end of the article.

A Michigan lawmaker wants to register reporters to ensure they’re credible and have “good moral character.”

State Sen. Bruce Patterson is introducing legislation that will regulate reporters much as the state regulates hairdressers, auto mechanics and plumbers. Patterson, who also practices constitutional law, says the general public is being overwhelmed by an increasing number of media outlets -- traditional, online and citizen generated -- and an even greater amount of misinformation.

“Legitimate media sources are critically important to our government,” he said.

He told FoxNews.com that some reporters covering state politics don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re working for publications he’s never heard of, so he wants to install a process that’ll help him and the general public figure out which reporters to trust.

“We have to be able to get good information,” he said. “We have to be able to rely on the source and to understand the credentials of the source.”

Critics say the proposed law will stem press freedoms and is bound to be politicized, with disgruntled politicians going after reporters who don’t paint them in a positive light. They also say that adding members of the fourth estate to the list of government-regulated occupations is probably unconstitutional.

“It’s misguided and it’s never going to fly,” said Kelly McBride, media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. She is currently involved in a project examining the transformation of the journalism profession.

The bill was introduced on May 11 and has been referred to the Michigan legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Regulatory Reform.

“It’s a single sponsor bill. I think that says it all,” said Mike MacLaren, executive director of the Michigan Press Association.

“I’ve not talked to the senator about this but whenever you see a single sponsor it’s usually indicative of what others think of it, which is not much.”

According to the bill, reporters who register will have to pay an application and registration fee and provide a "Board of Michigan Registered Reporters" with proof of:

-- "Good moral character” and demonstrate they have industry “ethics standards acceptable to the board.”

-- Possession of a degree in journalism or other degree substantially equivalent.

-- Not less than 3 years experience as a reporter or any other relevant background information.

-- Awards or recognition related to being a reporter.

-- Three or more writing samples.

Unregistered reporters would not be prevented from covering Michigan politics, and registering with the state would be voluntary.

Patterson conceded that he didn’t actually think his bill would be enacted into law.  He said he’s winding down his two-decade political career and wants to provoke public discussion before he leaves office.

“I would argue the First Amendment feels otherwise,” said MacLaren. “He’s entitled to his thoughts. The First Amendment protects those as well.”

“What’s the definition of a reporter? I haven’t been able to find out? What’s a reporter? What’s a journalist?” Patterson said. “I thought you had to have a degree in journalism, but apparently not. I could retire and be a journalist.”

Patterson said he wants a central place where members of the public can go to find out about reporters’ credentials, background and experience.

“I’m talking about a central depository for information so someone can go find all that out,” Patterson said, comparing his idea to the vetting process for expert witnesses who testify in court.

He said he feels that there’s no way to tell who’s a legitimate journalist and who’s just rewriting other reporters’ reporting and twisting facts.

“He is right, the problem is “How do I know where I’m getting my news from?”” said McBride, who is working on a Ford Foundation project for the Poynter Institute that address the issue of the growing fifth estate -- non-professional bloggers, community reporters, and citizen journalists -- and the shrinking of the fourth estate, the traditional press.

But even though McBride agreed with Patterson’s concerns that people don’t know which news outlets to trust, she said the bill introducing government-registered reporters is just a bad idea.

Plus, she said, governments often try to control journalists through a credentialing process -- and these attempts are usually deemed unconstitutional.

“I think that his concern is a legitimate one,” McBride said, “But you’re not going to solve the problem by creating some kind of licensing system.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the proposed bill would license reporters in Michigan. Sen. Patterson's proposed legislation calls for a voluntary system of registration with a government board.