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Home > Publications > Quill > What is a journalist?

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Wednesday, May 1, 2002
What is a journalist?

Despite problems surfacing from the ambiguity of ‘journalism,’ many professionals are reluctant to specifically define what we do.


By Gina Barton

Webster’s New World Dictionary (Third College Edition) defines a journalist this way: “A person whose occupation is journalism; reporter, news editor, etc.”

OK, then, what is journalism? The same dictionary gives this answer: “The work of gathering, writing, editing and publishing or disseminating news, as through newspapers and magazines or by radio and television.”

But we all know it’s not that simple. Just ask Vanessa Leggett, the aspiring Houston true crime writer. She’s never written for a newspaper, never had an article published in a magazine. But Leggett did something no newspaper staffers have ever done: She spent 168 days in jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources to government prosecutors.

Leggett’s case brings back an age-old struggle to define what we do. It’s a dangerous game. We can’t apply professional standards without a definition, and many privileges – such as press passes – require a definition. Some professionals shy away from getting too specific for fear the dialogue will lead us down the slippery slope toward government licensure and erosion of reporters’ privilege.

But if we don’t define this thing we call journalism, the government might. And virtually all news-gatherers who value the First Amendment agree that we don’t want Big Brother making the call.

In Washington, D.C., it’s a practical matter. Only so many people can fit into the press galleries of the U.S. House and Senate chambers. The decision about who gets a press pass is made by committees of journalists themselves. In 1996, a policy was developed to accredit online reporters. It states that to qualify, one “must provide daily news with significant original reporting content (and) must charge a market rate fee for subscriptions or access, or carry paid advertising at current market rates.”

Since then, several Web-based publications have challenged the definition – most notably WorldNetDaily, which was turned down by the standing committee of correspondents.

“They had the same reaction initially with television reporters,” said Philip Meyer, Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “When journalism was defined as working for a newspaper, it was easy. The explosion of technology has made it possible for anybody to qualify as a journalist.”

Courts have found it necessary to answer the question as well, particularly when deciding who is covered by shield laws, which allow journalists in more than 30 states to protect the names of confidential sources.

In the Leggett case, the Fifth Circuit avoided the question. It upheld a 1972 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Paul M. Branzburg, which stated that the First Amendment “does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation that all citizens have to respond to a grand jury subpoena and answer questions relevant to a criminal investigation.”

But the court left the door open for further discussion. In a footnote to their decision, the judges wrote that the question of whether Leggett was a journalist wasn’t before them. If it were, however, they said they would use precedent set by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987.

In that case, popularly known as the von Bulow case, the court ruled that anyone – whether employed by a publication or not – who gathers information with the intent to disseminate it to the public may invoke privilege.

Inevitably, some people who think they should be covered – perhaps web-based writers – won’t be, said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. Many shield laws, written before the age of the Internet, offer protection specifically to those who work full time for print or broadcast media.

Kirtley said she sees the wisdom of this, and of the von Bulow decision.

“The government may say, ‘OK, if everyone’s a journalist, we’re not going to give journalists special privileges anymore.’ “

The question matters only when there are consequences at stake, Meyer said.

“The recognition of special rights for the press could easily lead to special responsibilities,” he wrote in a recent op-ed piece in USA Today. “How, for example, could we define membership in the special group without starting down a slippery slope leading first to the licensing of journalists and ultimately to censorship?”

A second problem has emerged now that so many corporate entities own newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations. A federal campaign-finance law regulates political speech by corporations, but can’t limit the media in reporting about or endorsing candidates – which would be a restriction of free speech.

“Enforcing the exception could eventually require a clear definition of a media company, and that, too, sounds a lot like licensing,” Meyer wrote.

The fear of licensure and other erosions of First Amendment rights is exactly why Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, resists defining the term too specifically.

“Right now, anyone can be a journalist. There’s no test you have to take, no fee you have to pay, no standard you have to meet,” she said.

In many foreign countries, the government decides who gets a license to practice journalism. This gives officials the power to decide who’s a “good and worthy” journalist, Dalglish said. Before you know it, the journalist’s watchdog role disappears out of the fear of license revocation.

That’s why there is not one definition of journalism accepted worldwide, said Seth Effron, deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

“Critical to the question of ‘What is journalism?’ is where it’s being practiced,” he said. “In some places, it means a license. In some places, it means a license and journalism school – sometimes a journalism school run by the state. ... In the United States, the First Amendment gives lots of people and practitioners the opportunity to do journalism without a government-issued or guild-issued credential, which also makes it harder to define.”

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of the book, “The Elements of Journalism” and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said that neither a license nor a person’s intentions make someone a journalist.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m a journalist, here’s my press pass.’ You have to say, ‘I’m a journalist. Here’s my work.’ Some of the people with press passes don’t make the cut.”

Dalglish prefers to take a broader, more inclusive view, defining a journalist as: “Someone who is collecting information with the purpose of disseminating it to the public.”

When Leggett’s case first came to light, Leggett received little sympathy from reporters, Dalglish said. Some were simply being elitist. Some were afraid of competition. Some have no patience for those trying to get started in the business.

“There are a lot of people who think free-lancers aren’t ‘real’ journalists, and that was an issue in the early days of Vanessa’s incarceration,” Dalglish said. “Then they started to realize that every other journalist in the Fifth Circuit was going to have to live with the decision in this case.”

Kirtley agreed, but conceded that the Internet makes things a bit tougher.

“My definition is anybody who manages to get their work published or broadcast is a journalist. ... If anybody who has a computer and a modem says, ‘I’m a journalist,’ the courts aren’t going to go for it,” she said.

Ronald Goldfarb, an attorney and author in Washington, D.C., who recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece on the topic, tends to agree that typing words on a computer and sending them into cyberspace via a modem isn’t enough to make someone a journalist.

“The tool one uses is not the defining element,” he said. “It’s what you do with that tool. ... It’s somebody who has been judged by the marketplace by being published in a legitimate medium, which rules out the Internet.”

Another problem in defining “journalist” lies in society’s difficulty defining “news.”

The dictionary’s first definition reads: “new information about anything; information previously unknown.” The second definition brings the press closer to mind: “reports, collectively, of recent happenings, especially those broadcast over radio or TV, printed in a newspaper, etc.”

The ever-blurring line between news and entertainment makes the question all the more difficult, according to Kirtley.

“Is Geraldo Rivera a journalist?” she asked. “Some people would say he’s not.”

How about the on-camera personalities of the television show Entertainment Tonight? How about radio talk-show hosts? Deejays? Independent broadcasters on cable access shows? Sometimes the players themselves aren’t sure. That’s why some believe it’s more effective to stop worrying about who journalists are and instead define what they do.

“Every now and then we get a call from someone who says, ‘I think I’m a reporter,’” said Dalglish, whose group aims to assist reporters with legal issues.

“In trying to figure out who we help, ask: What were they doing? Who was their audience? Are they doing this for political reasons?” she said. “I look for independence. I look to see somebody acting independently in gathering information, not mud-slinging. I want to know what’s your purpose behind what you’re doing.”

In Dalglish’s view, a landowner who sets up a Web site to protest government seizure of his property wouldn’t qualify. A television personality who interviews celebrities would.

Effron, of the Nieman Foundation, agreed.

“Critical to a definition of journalist is someone who participates in the seeking of facts with an open mind and seeks to organize and present them in a way that informs the reader or viewer to act in their own best interest. (Journalists) don’t enter into what they’re doing with an agenda, and they don’t do it at someone’s behest.”

Rosenstiel’s book grew out of extensive research by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which was formed in 1997 by media professionals who were afraid that journalism was too easily blending into other forms of communication and therefore losing its uniqueness.

The Committee sponsored 21 public forums throughout the United States and conducted extensive research with hundreds of reporters to define their work.

“The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” according to the Committee’s statement of concern. “This encompasses myriad roles – helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community’s goals, heroes and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as a watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless.”

Through the research and in cooperation with the journalists, the committee developed nine core principles that consist of their theory of journalism.

“These nine ideas are agreed upon by (everyone from) college kids who run their own Web sites to the oldest, retired journalism professors,” Rosenstiel said. “They’re not highly moral principles; they’re deeply practical principles.”

The principles, listed on the Committee’s Web site and expanded into the book, are:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to truth. The way to demonstrate this is by thoroughly verifying facts and by letting the public know clearly about the sources of information. For example, a phrase such as “through a three-month investigation and interviews with 500 sources” is better than “the newspaper has learned.”
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens. In the United States, this is an implied covenant, agreed upon by the public. “Nobody believes that we are bought,” Rosenstiel said. “In several countries, they are.”
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification. “The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment.”
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover. Independence is a better word than neutrality because it allows for commentary within the media. “While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform – not their devotion to a certain group or outcome,” according to the committee’s list of principles.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. This principle emphasizes the importance of the watchdog role, as set forth by the framers of the Constitution.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise. This public discussion “serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition,” according to the list of principles.
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. On its web site, the committee explains: “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. For its own survival, it must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.”
  8. Its practitioners must keep the news comprehensive and proportional. The principles state: “Journalism is a form of cartography; it creates a map for citizens to navigate society.”
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience. “Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility – a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite,” the principles state.

Conspicuously absent from the list are things many news-gatherers hold dear, such as fairness, balance and neutrality. That’s because these concepts are goals, not tools, Rosenstiel said.

Some people – even those employed by legitimate newsgathering organizations – don’t meet the standards every time, Rosenstiel said. The only people who should be considered true journalists are the ones who succeed more often than they fail.

“If a television personality does three-fourths celebrity puffery and one-fourth real reporting, well, if you beat your wife half the time and you’re gentle to her the other half, what do you call it?”

In Rosenstiel’s opinion, only the work is important. Education doesn’t matter. The matter of delivery doesn’t matter. Employment doesn’t matter. Even intent doesn’t matter.

“It’s not that you think you were serving the public, you have to actually do it,” he said. “It’s like being a scientist. If they fake the research and fudge the numbers, they haven’t really made a contribution.”

Gina Barton is a reporter for The Indianapolis Star.

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