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.
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?
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.”
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.”
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?
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.