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Summary:

In response to the upheaval in the media industry and what they see as the problems that the web has created for journalism, some are arguing that journalists should be regulated and licensed — but such solutions would create worse problems than they claim to solve.

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Is the media industry in turmoil? Clearly it is, with publishers fighting declines in circulation and advertising revenue, combined with competition from digital-native entities such as blog networks and the “democracy of distribution” that comes from social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook. Journalism itself is even said to be in jeopardy, or at least the journalism we are used to. So what’s to be done? Some are recommending journalists be licensed by some kind of official body, so we can get “real” journalism from professionals — but these kinds of solutions would create even worse problems than the ones they are trying to solve.

In a recent blog post about the TechCrunch affair, in which he describes the back-and-forth between founder Mike Arrington and AOL executives Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington over the fate of the blog network, Australian writer Aaron Holesgrove says we are “being cheated out of objective journalism.” Sites like TechCrunch, he argues, don’t really provide journalism at all, but just a series of opinionated (but informed) blog posts about the news. Says Holesgrove:

TechCrunch has never been a source of true journalism in the first place. It is a blog with opinionated and biased content featuring pieces about technology from an informed point of view. While their pieces are news in itself, they are not journalism.

Are bloggers journalists?

And what is journalism? Apparently, Holesgrove defines journalism as being solely the pursuit of and presentation of objective facts: something he doesn’t seem to think most bloggers are capable of. At one point, he describes All Things Digital writer Kara Swisher and TechCrunch writer Paul Carr as “journalists acting like bloggers,” but then adds later that he doesn’t think Carr is a journalist at all because he isn’t objective. After some more back-and-forth about TechCrunch, the author then comes to the conclusion that we have an “objective journalism problem.”

Much of this seems like confusion over what bloggers do and what journalists do, a debate that has been going on more or less since the blog as we know it was first invented. Are there journalists who write “objective” facts about events? Yes. Are there bloggers who do the same? Clearly there are. Are there journalists who write opinions about events or news? Yes — and there are plenty of bloggers who do the same. What distinguishes these two groups? Not much, except perhaps the publishing platform they use, or the name on the masthead of the entity they work for.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one trying to figure out what exactly the term “journalism” refers to, or should refer to: Dave Winer, who pioneered both blogging and programming tools like RSS and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s school of journalism, came up with his own definition after a recent debate with me (and others such as author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis), and it too describes what most people would call “reporting” — something that’s arguably just a subset of what journalism refers to.

Chris Anderson, a media researcher and associate professor at the City University of New York, has also written about what journalism means in a digital era where publishing is as simple as the click of a mouse button. Does it just mean publishing information of some kind, or is it more than that? Winer’s definition, for example, doesn’t really include curation such as that practiced by NPR journalist Andy Carvin — a crucial part of what journalism has become. Carvin has talked about how even non-journalists can engage in “random acts of journalism” when the need arises.

Journalism should be “treated like a utility”

So what is Holesgrove’s solution to this alleged “objective journalism problem?” He says journalism should be treated like a utility, and some kind of government or industry body should license journalists to practice — in the same way that hydro workers and others who work for various utilities are regulated.

[T]he industry needs a firm line drawn between what is journalism and what is not and a little bit of intervention by a higher power could solve the whole issue in one simple stroke: It’s time to start thinking about journalism as a utility … utilities are identified as being essential to our daily operation of life and practicing professionals need to be licensed in those fields in order to protect the integrity of the utility.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one with this kind of idea: The culture minister in the Canadian province of Quebec recently discussed creating a new law that would legislate who could be a “professional journalist” as opposed to what the minister called “amateur bloggers.” While the criteria for admission to the professional category weren’t clearly described, the government said it wanted to identify those journalists who were dedicated to “serving the public interest,” and anyone with the professional rank would enjoy certain privileges such as “better access to government sources.”

This is the kind of slippery slope Holesgrove’s argument would take us down: a slope that leads to the government deciding who is a journalist and who isn’t, and therefore who deserves to be given certain information and who doesn’t. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? I certainly don’t. For better or worse, we now live in a world in which — as online-media pioneer Dan Gillmor said recently — you are your own gatekeeper, and you now get to decide whom you trust for information.

Is the media industry in turmoil? Sure it is. And everywhere you look there are “amateur bloggers” causing trouble by disobeying the supposed laws of journalism — whether by quoting anonymous sources or engaging in conflicts of interest, or a hundred other things that “real” journalists supposedly never do. But licensing some small group of journalists and excluding others would not resolve any of those issues (although it might reduce the numbers of people engaging in them). All it would do is restrict the amount of information available, and that’s a much bigger problem.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Wesley Fryer and Yan Arief Purwanto and Petteri Sulonen

  1. Right. More credentials. That’s exactly the solution to the problem. NOT.

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  2. Totally agree that we should not have the government decide who is, or can be, a journalist. But the issue is still something that we need a fix for!

    Recently I was writing an article for a magazine about iPhone Market Trends in China, and did extensive research on the Internet. That demonstrated well to me how difficult it has become to find well researched and useful material. Most did not cite their source, a lot was just rumors, some stated incorrect numbers and figures and dates were missing on many sites. … I could write a whole article about this… and maybe I should, but my point is: We do need some sort of separation between people that professionally research and report news, and people that as a hobby writers a quick opinion post or rehash some news.

    It could be a simple as giving professional well-established-online-journalists, such as yourself, a different name. Blogger is simply not clear enough, as any kid with a computer can be a blogger. Maybe Ournalist, or Irnalist (Like Internet+Journalist). hhmm

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  3. The difference is that real journalists label their opinion pieces as such. Bloggers do not, hence their opinion pieces run as fact.

    For example, this piece would not appear as a news item on the NY Times, it would appear under Op-Ed.

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  4. Also, bloggers tend to put their ego into their writing (ie, “as I reported last month…”) whereas in a newspaper you would at best see “as we reported last month”.

    Blogging is all about ego and making name for oneself.

    Trained journalists must undergo some sort of training for removing the “I” from their writing. That stuff was put into the mainstream by bloggers.

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    1. Some egos thrive nicely in pompous false modesty with “we” and passive voice. Whatever the ego level, better to get some first person honesty.

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    2. Some egos thrive nicely in false modesties of “we” and passive voice. Whatever the ego, better to get some clear first person honesty, even in scholarly writing.

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    3. A blog is not the same as a newspaper. In all aspects of social media, including blogs, it’s about the dialogue and interaction. Instead of being “told”, readers are participating in the conversation, bloggers are often serving as the conduit or starting the conversation. Readers of blogs generally can relate to the bloggers they follow and feel they have some sort of relationship or sense of community with the blogger and other readers. The nature of a blog lends itself to a first person or personal voice. Columnists in traditional media also often speak in the first person.

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  5. Does anyone here really believe there has ever, since the invention of the printing press, been any objective journalism? C’mon, man.

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    1. You are correct, simply see the Murdoch crap that went on in the UK to see what really goes on anywhere. But that’s not really the topic…

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    2. yes, jim, i do believe there is such a thing as objective journalism — as it’s something i’ve been practicing for 27 years. do i always get it perfectly objective? no, but i damn sure try — and own up to it when i don’t, just as the vast majority of my colleagues have over these nearly three decades — and that’s what separates “real” journalists from the play-one-on-tv types

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      1. Agreed, and I’ve been around about the same period. As a community newspaper editor, I’ve had reporters give me stories that are so blatantly slanted it would make on blush. I’m not afraid to research information and re-write paragraphs to make it objective — then I add a credit line since I did work and to save the reporter’s ass when a subject asks him why it’s not slanted in his/her favor.

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      2. Don’t know if this was posted my first time.
        I’ve been around newspapers about as long as bd; as a community newspaper editor, I’ve had reporters give been stories that are so blatantly slanted it would make one blush. I have no problem doing some research for info, re-writing paragraphs to make it as close to objective as possible, and putting a credit line in since I did work and to save the reporter’s when the subject asks why it was not slanted in his/her favor.

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  6. Interesting piece for sure. I’d like to clarify something about the proposed Quebec legislation, a fact that’s often overlooked in opinion pieces.

    The proposed legislation actually suggests that the FPJQ (“Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec”, i.e. the journalists’ professional association) handles the process of deciding who is a “true journalist”.

    Corporatism is the issue here, not government intervention.

    (Full disclosure: I make a living as a journalist in Quebec. And a member of the FPJQ.)

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  7. This was one old fashioned viewpoint about journalism. Journalism has always been perspective based. Always will. GigaOm, ATD, Engadget, TC and even Quora (with a decentralized approach) — all are niche based bloggers (and experts) creating information flow, education and entertainment. I love this evolution. To this end, we could even say “journalism is dead,” as Holesgrove defines it.

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  8. Mathew, Holesgrove’s idea also makes it difficult for a journalist to present stories contrary to popular, or majority opinion. If this licensing body uses the number of complaints as an indicator, then a contrary story might trigger floods of complaints.

    Then who decides who sits on the licensing board? And their process?

    Finally, who is the licensing board going to look to for input on whether a piece is objective or not? Other journalists. Perhaps bloggers too. Well, we have that already. I’d rather have that review of objectivity happen out in the open, than in some licensing body’s hearing.

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  9. In reality, it would be a professional body that would determine this, as with other professions. But, of course, it won’t happen. When the news collapses, however, is when we will see the real difference between bloggers and journalists – for all the talk of bloggers being journalists, I see very few of them wearing out shoe leather to get a story. The vast majority of it is commenting on the stories that real journalists have produced.

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  10. Aaron Holesgrove Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Thanks for taking the time to read my article Matt.

    I have to say that the biggest point that you missed is that I didn’t suggest government intervention at all. My exact words were “intervention by a higher power” and I went on to discuss the idea of a not-for-profit organisation established by journalists, for journalists.

    I was being vague but that’s mainly because the idea is not a complete one – just a conversation starter. The concept though was that journalists would regulate themselves. I don’t even think government enforcement over objective reporting would be legal under the First Ammendment and wouldn’t suggest it due to that.

    The whole problem with all the whinging about Mike Arrington’s disclosure issues is that the journalists are holding him to their own personal and ethical standards. That’s stupid – journalism doesn’t have a set standard so no one can be held to one.

    …unless there was a set standard. Clearly, things such as saying “I think” can’t/shouldn’t be policed, but disclosure issues should when it pertains to delivering the news about companies you’re investing in, for example.

    If this kind of general system existed, where journalists all conformed to a written honour code, then the Mike Arrington situation wouldn’t be a situation – even Arianna Huffington wouldn’t flinch. Everyone would know that Arrington wasn’t a journalist in the first place and therefore doesn’t supply journalism or break journalistic integrity – he’d just be a rogue writer making his own rules and he’d be left alone. The fact that Huffington is holding him to a journalistic standard is ridiculous. The idea is to set these sorts of boundaries so that bloggers and journalists know where they stand.

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