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Defining Journalism

Some bloggers are journalists.

And some paid reporters aren't.

The power to mold the future fo the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.The "Who is a Journalist?" debate came back at the end of 2011 when Montana blogger Crystal Cox lost a Federal Case focusing on an Oregon law that protects journalists from having to reveal sources. Cox had been sued for defamation by attorney Kevin Padrick in regards to stories she wrote about the bankruptcy of Obsidian Finance Group LLC. She relied on anonymous sources.

A federal judge ruled that under Oregon law, she did not qualify as a journalist. This of course, sent the journalistic and blogging communities into a tizzy about definitions (until they figured out that Cox was a bit on the edge and, frankly, not much of a journalist at all). This isn't a new debate, it's been around since bloggers started writing online.

That's the wrong debate. Journalism is a profession, it's a way of thinking. It's never been clearly defined, but you know it when you see it. Kind of like the classic definition of pornography. Can a blogger be a journalist? Sure, if they are doggedly pursuing truth, working sources, checking facts and, as Pulitzer would say, "shining a light into the darkest corners."

By the same token, many paid reporters are no more journalists than typists.

Former Ambassador Joe Wilson is on a speaking tour with his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, talking about what the two of them went through during the debate about going to war in Iraq. I'm not going to rehash the whole story here, but in his talk Wilson made a simple point: journalists didn't do their jobs.

He points out how journalists wrote a narrative about he and his wife that was fed to them by people in power, while ignoring a much more important story about whey the US was entering a war and why the President put words into the State of the Union address that, on the surface, were simply untrue. The question is why? Why did reporters chase the Wilsons while not doing the harder and more "journalistic" work?

Dan Gillmor makes a similar argument in his wonderful book Mediactive, in which he calls the Washington press corps little more than "stenographers" in their coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

I head a wonderful debate on the subject at Social Media Weekend during a discussion about Occupy Wall Street and Press Credentials. The issue here became pretty simple to understand, but complicated to solve. The NYPD issues press credentials so they can provide the right access to the right people. But not every person working full-time for a journalistic organization has them. Also, they take a while to get (one reporter applied for credentials in October and still hasn't been "screened." So when police started to arrest protesters, "journalists" were caught in the roundup. Still, were they journalists or were they participants?

Andrea Courtois over at WBZ TV (@AndreaWBZ on Twitter) told me that she stopped following quite a number of reporters because, she felt, they became too involved in the movement, killing their objectivity.

Then there is Josh Stearns, who tracked journalist arrests during the Occupy movements. Part of his issue was simply defining which of those arrested were, in fact, journalists. Even on the panel itself some people who worked for journalistic organizations like MSNBC or the Daily News went to the site to check things out during off-hours. In other words, they weren't acting on behalf of their organizations when they started acting like journalists. So, in that moment, what were they?

What does it all mean?

In my opinion the main issue comes  down to the inherent tension between journalism's "purpose" and its reward structure. Press freedoms are, in many ways, a necessary offshoot of democracy. The populous can't make intelligent voting decisions unless it has information by which to make those decisions. However, publishing is a business, one that sells advertising and subscriptions. Information has value if people WANT to consume it. Citizen journalists fill some of this gap, but where will we the people get our information on a regular basis? How will we vet what comes in? What information can we trust?

We, as media consumers, prove again and again that we are far more interested in being entertained than informed. We do it every day by clicking on TMZ rather than Global Post. We follow entertainers in striking numbers on Twitter, but leave intelligent, thoughtful people alone.

The fault, dear brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.

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2 comments to Defining Journalism

  • Chuck, as to outside activity of a supposed journalist, I think it all boils down to this: When you commit anything to the future – put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard – you had better adhere to the objectivity and accuracy standards that /should/ define all journalists. If not, you are a blogger, not matter what your paycheck says. If, however, a blogger continues to cover things with objectivity and accuracy, he or she is as much a journalist as those of us getting paid as such.

  • I would agree with you on all but one word: objectivity. It’s a big debate, does fair=objective? Is objectivity truly possible? Is it an unfair standard? Is it necessary? Is it simply up to the readers to understand the bias of what they’re reading and apply their own filter?

    Coming back to Dan Gillmor for a moment, he writes “Another reason to be skeptical is modern journalism’s equally unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the ‘sides’ are overwhelmingly mismatched.”

    That is often done in the name of “objectivity.”