21st Century News

The September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review asks the question “what is journalism for?” It’s a good question. As things stand today, both the definition of journalist and the idea of journalism have become very blurry.

Having once considered journalism as a career, I thought I’d take a look.
News Anchor

Interestingly, in an odd display of doublethink, the Review included longform articles by established writers that discussed the elite realm of the professional journalist, alongside comments culled from CJR’s website such as the following:

  • “I am a firm believer that every person can be a journalist.” (Wenxin Fan, Bloomberg News)
  • “Your plane crashes. You tweet a picture of survivors stumbling away. You’ve just become a reporter.” (Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic)
  • “You don’t have to go to journalism school to be a journalist.” (Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speech writer)
  • “The practice [of journalism] need not be limited to an elite group of professionals called “journalists.” (Alexander Jutkowitz, managing partner of Group SJR)

Having asked the question, CJR doesn’t really give an answer but rather provides a forum for debate. Fine. But let’s get down to brass tacks: some people are paid to be journalists, and some (many) aren’t. So what makes the difference between who gets paid and who doesn’t?

Credentials?

It used to be that if you worked for a for-profit news organization, you were de facto a journalist. All it took was for you to say “I’m with the New York Times” or “I’m with CBS News” to get you in the door and access to your goal. It was essentially your credentials. “Call my editor” was your proof.

Today, as profit hemorrhages from the news profession and former reporters are being laid off or bought out, many people practice journalism without the backing of a big-name newspaper or TV network. The Huffington Post, for instance, uses many unpaid “reporters” to produce stories, as do some other news organizations. At the same time, many who took buyouts still call themselves journalists. What does it mean to be an “independent journalist”?

When you start talking about libel suits, the protection of sources, and access to Congress or the White House, things get even muddier. Who’s in the club and what’s the secret handshake? Hard to say. “Congress is arguing about the definition of ‘journalist,'” says the CJR. The pending federal shield law would create a definition of a “covered journalist,” describing who’s in–and thus gets certain protections–and who’s out.

But for the moment, there is no objective definition of “journalist.” There is no license, no equivalent of a bar exam or a medical residency. Asking for a definition of “journalist” is “nothing but an invitation to class war,” according to Jay Rosen in CJR. Rather, according to Joel Simon in the same CJR issue, the challenge is to maintain “an information space that allows [self-described journalists] to operate and accept that within that space there will be all sorts of others using information for different purposes.”

Accuracy?

Does calling yourself a journalist obligate you to being correct?

Consider this: In an embarrassingly huge blunder, CBS News’ flagship program 60 Minutes retracted a story it aired in October about the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi because it relied on a flawed source. Professional journalists–whose job it is report the facts–somehow got sucked in by the fabricated story of a self-important yahoo and didn’t bother to find out if it was true. They relied on others to do it for them.

As another example, professional journalist Anna Kooiman, of Fox News, reported in October (again) that President Obama had plans to pay for a museum of Muslim culture. Except that it wasn’t true. Kooiman based her report on a satirical article published on the Web and didn’t take the time to verify its accuracy.

And in a demonstration of bad journalism on so many levels, with a dash of cultural insensitivity, broadcasters at KTVU, a Fox affiliate television station in San Francisco, reported in July after the Asiana Airlines crash the inaccurate “names” of the flight crew. The names were not just wrong, they were offensive–Captain Sum Ting Wong, for instance–but the anchor for the broadcast said the names were confirmed with the National Transportation Safety Board.

In their rush to report, these professional news people sacrificed accuracy, credibility, and reputation. “But journalism belongs several echelons above reporting,” says Marc Ambinder, contributing editor at The Atlantic, again in CJR. “It often requires withholding information in the service of understanding it better.”

Experience?

Many people read the Drudge Report. I don’t, and I wouldn’t know who Matt Drudge is if I didn’t hear so much about him. According to Wikipedia, “Drudge was unknown before he began the news aggregation site, the Drudge Report.” He had no experience at all, and yet the Drudge Report influences millions of people. Why do people read it? Can he call himself a journalist?

Paper boys

Paper boys

One comment in the CJR issue describes a guy who, having never worked for a news organization, researched the founder of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and revealed him to be a violent racist. This, according to the commenter, is journalism: “The act of journalism doesn’t require a career.”

The CJR issue also includes an article about a group of people with absolutely no journalism experience whatsoever who bought and now run a small town newspaper. Can they call themselves journalists?

***

So, you can be paid as a journalist whether you have credentials or not, whether you are accurate or not, and whether you have experience or not.

What a profession, eh? It defies category.

The question remains: who gets paid? I can only guess that it’s based on who you know and/or how good you look. The rest is a bit of a mystery.

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5 comments

  1. Jann @ Austin Details Art + Photo

    You’ve offered up some good insights to try answering the question. But given the nature of “reporting” in an internet-connected world, maybe the question should be, What are the New Rules of Reporting? We’ve long had yellow journalism, tabloids, gossip and sensationalistic coverage that masquerade as news. We’ve still got it today–except it’s called twitter, blogging, instagram, aggregating. What all of the new forms of “journalism” lack are a set of ethics that readers understand to define the news they get. Developing that set of ethics, and promoting it, belongs to J-Schools everywhere.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks for your comment Jann.
      Presumably, the professional journalists who made the bone-headed mistakes mentioned in the post went to journalism school rather than coming up through the ranks as a blogger or aggregator or some such. How then can we explain their lack of a set of ethics? Is it part of the “news culture” we now live in? Does that make it acceptable?
      I do agree that the yellow journalism we have today is affecting the whole business. I can only hope that we’re in a period of transition, and this will all settle out someday. Maybe it’s analogous to the day of the snake-oil salesman–new technology coupled with an uneducated (or unfamiliar) audience. We’ll see.

  2. Quill & Lantern

    As a trained journalist, uni grad of journalism, 20+ year career as a journalist and published author I pass on a few thoughts.

    1. (Satire ) “Your plane crashes. You place a compress on survivors who have been hurt. You’ve just become a doctor.” Dah ? The new tech-age does not create journalists, it creates an easier way for witnesses and people involved in a story to tell their part of the story. From their shoes. It does not necessarily make them journalists because true journalism requires an impartial unbiased and mostly uninvolved observation of events where many sides of a story is researched, probed, investigated, many people interviewed, story written / produced, reviewed by editors and fact-checked before going live. A person tweeting a photo at the football is no more a journalist than a happy dad with a still-camera was in the 70s. Okay, so the tweeted image gets around on social media…and that’s the key word. Social. It is not journalism. Look at how an old story, photo, comment or issue can gain interest on FB and be either very very old, or completely wrong. Social media is a way for people to connect to each other the way people used to do over the fence, at the bar, café, social clubs, sporting clubs and wherever else. It certainly does allow more information to be broadcast and more quickly: but does every person posting post an impartial, unbiased, investigated comment with interviews ?

    2. As with most undefined careers where degrees, certificates, memberships and credentials are not the norm (farmers, actors, inventors, writers, singers, prostitutes): typically you could use the average impression or interpretation from people with a few brain cells. Does growing a few herbs in some pots on the sink make you a farmer ?

    3. Every career has dodgy people. Where to begin or end ? Difference being, journalists publish their mistakes. It’s a hazard of the job. We don’t get to see how many people died on the operating table today around the world due to a whoopsiedaisy; wrong drugs; took the wrong organ out; drunk surgeon; oops forgot the anatomy.

    4. Bad journalism is compounded by financial demands of owners who want news churned out 24/7 for an insatiable audience. Last century journalists worked on a story all day, all week, all month or all year. A war correspondent might have filed one story every few days. Today a war correspondent might file two TV / online stories; be expected to do five radio updates; tweet comments; post facebook comments on the news site; and write an article for either online or newspaper or magazine outlets the news media company also runs. It’s ridiculous.

    5. Independent or freelance journalists are what news media organisations are now using a lot more of to cut costs. This means those journalists are usually no longer covered for liabilities and are often poorly paid by the word. This definitely reduces the ability to research, interview, probe, fact check or even give a crap.

    6. I believe a true journalist is one who seeks out original stories from their innate ability to find something of interest, of value, or importance, of curiosity to the general community ~ whether it be in their local area or global. Regurgitating unresearched garbage leads to the above mistakes and lack of credibility. These people are typists, not journalists. Finding something unique and going the whole hog to produce an impartial story with many sub-angles, takes initiative, intelligence, experience, tenacity, creativity, enthusiasm and I could go on and on …

    Thanks for your post !

    • Matthew Taylor

      Hi Renata!
      Thanks so much for your perspective. I think it really adds to the topic.
      You note that the financial needs of the news organization, coupled with new technology, has forced the journalist to do more with less, leading to dodgy practitioners. I’m wondering what you, as a journalist, think about not-for-profit journalism, such as ProPublica. Would that be the solution to these problems, or create some new problems we haven’t thought of yet?

Let me know what you think.

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