The Crystal L. Cox case shook the blogosphere, ultimately disappointing bloggers and journalists everywhere with the truth regarding her tactics and how she used blogging and search engine optimization. What happened, and what could this case mean to you, especially if you don't consider yourself an "investigative blogger" or even blog as your profession? Here are a couple of takeaways:
Summary of the Crystal L. Cox Case
The original trial took place in December 2011, when the court ruled that Cox has to pay Obsidian Financial and bankruptcy lawyer Kevin Padrick $2.5 million for defamation. Cox claimed in her numerous blog posts and websites that Padrick and company had engaged in tax fraud, bribery, and money laundering, among other things. The blogging community was originally outraged, as the opinion was interpreted to mean that as a blogger, Cox was not a journalist and therefore wasn't protected by the state's shield law. On the surface, it seemed like a company with more money and power was able to squash the notion that it could be involved in wrong doing.
Reports from April 2012 now reveal that Cox wasn't the victim of an outdated shield law, but was a scammer who utilized blogging and the Internet to ruin people's online reputations, only to offer reputation management services to the very people she defamed. It was found that this was the case with Padrick and Obsidian Financial, as well as the journalists who covered the case in the months after, their family members, government officials in her home town, and other individuals at high-profile companies. Cox has never proven her accusations. Her case went to appeal, which was denied, where the original judge clarified by saying that he did not say all bloggers weren't journalists, just not Cox.
What Bloggers Can Learn From This
The first thing to do, if you're a blogger who wants to be a journalist, is to understand what it means to be a journalist and what behaviors are associated with good journalists. United States District Court Judge Marco A. Hernandez defined media toward the end of his opinion of the original trial, which states:
"Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story. Without evidence of this nature, defendant is not “media.”
Follow this definition, and you and your work won't be discredited as sensational or opinionated.
The second lesson is that bloggers can no longer get away with saying whatever they want, whenever they want online. Prior to this, bloggers have gotten away with writing falsehoods, releasing juicy stories before all the facts are in, or spreading rumor for self gain. If it can count as defamation, then it can be subject to an investigation and a trial similar to Cox's. Even if it's meant to be opinion, it's important to exercise restraint. Take the time to do the legwork, to find evidence that's more than anecdotal or circumstantial.
Be mindful of your domain name and your blog post titles. Cox has over 500 URLs at her disposal, and some of them include obsidianfinancialsucks.com, bankruptcytrustfraud.com, realestatelies.com, and realestatehoax.com. Domain names like these don't present the best branding opportunities for you as a blogger. First, they show bias, and whether or not you want to be an investigative blogger, you don't want your readers to think that you're writing wanting to create/expose a certain reality, instead of doing what it takes to find the story and to tell it as it is. Second, unless you plan to build your blog into a multitude of sites and eventually to have a multimedia firm, you are building a personal brand. Do you want your personal brand (or even your bigger media brand) to be associated with vitriol, conspiracy theories, and dubious methodology? If not, then you have to think about the rest of your blog, not just individual blog posts.