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Defining journalism is a lot easier said than done

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The ripples continue to spread from a recent Oregon court ruling involving a blogger who was sued for defamation, and argued she should be covered by the state’s “media shield” law. The judge decided that she didn’t qualify as a journalist, which in turn reignited the old debate over whether bloggers are (or can sometimes be) journalists. Some have argued instead of this question, it’s more important to define what journalism is, and ensure it remains protected. But in many ways, that is even harder to define than who qualifies to be a journalist.

To recap the case, Crystal Cox — who refers to herself as an “investigative blogger” — was sued for defamation as a result of some blog posts she wrote about a company and its CEO. The judge who heard the case looked at Cox’s blog and ruled that she wasn’t a member of the media, at least for the purposes of Oregon’s media shield law, because she wasn’t affiliated with any traditional media outlets. This caused a wave of outrage in the blogosphere from many (including me) who believe bloggers can be journalists regardless of whether they work for a mainstream media entity.

We shouldn’t be protecting journalists, but journalism

In the wake of the ruling, several bloggers — including Kashmir Hill at Forbes and David Carr of the New York Times (s nyt) — noted Cox’s behavior went way beyond what most journalists (professional or not) would describe as journalistic: among other things, she created domains aimed at tarnishing the reputation of her targets, then apparently sent an email to the company offering her services as an SEO consultant to repair the reputation she helped destroy.

As Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic pointed out, this allowed journalists everywhere to heave a sigh of relief and say to themselves: “She’s not a journalist; she’s just a crazy lady with WordPress! We don’t need to protect her.” But this avoids the real question, said Rosen — not who is or isn’t a journalist, but what is journalism and how do we make sure that it is protected? The framers of the U.S. constitution weren’t concerned with journalists, she said, because they didn’t even exist yet as we know them. Instead, they wanted to protect free speech regardless of who engages in it.

Journalism professor Jay Rosen has made a similar point: we should be talking about protecting journalism, he says, not just trying to figure out who is a journalist. But how do we define what constitutes journalism? The judge in the Oregon case tried to come up with some qualities that he said Cox didn’t exhibit, including:

  • proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest
  • keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted
  • mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources
  • creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others
  • contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story

All of these are excellent examples of things some journalists do — but there are plenty who don’t, and practices are all over the map. The point about confidentiality alone is probably ignored by more journalists than adhere to it (not to mention the confusion over the exact meaning of phrases like “off the record,” “on background” and “not for attribution”). Should licensing bodies be giving tests, the way they do for doctors and lawyers before they are accredited? Some think they should. Josh Stearns of the non-profit group Free Press, who has been tracking journalists arrested during the crackdown on the Occupy movement, argues actions should speak louder than labels.

How do we classify “random acts of journalism?”

Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, who has been using Twitter as a one-man newswire about the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere, noted he wouldn’t meet many definitions of a journalist because he isn’t actually a reporter — and I doubt he maintains detailed notes of the conversations he conducts with people in the Arab world over Twitter, or discusses confidentiality agreements with them in depth. He also does a lot of “assembling the writings and postings of others,” as the judge put it. But I don’t think anyone would argue that what Carvin is doing isn’t journalism.

When a Pakistani Twitter user posted observations about the Osama bin Laden raid while it was happening, a debate sprang up about whether what he did qualified as journalism, and Carvin argued that there are more and more examples of what he called “random acts of journalism,” where someone happens to be in a certain place and provides on-the-scene reporting — or takes a photo of a plane that has landed in the Hudson River, for example.

Are these people journalists? Not really. But what they are doing is clearly one of the crucial elements of journalism now — as journalism becomes an ecosystem that anyone can become part of, rather than a static concept associated with a specific group of professionals and a specific group of platforms. Learning how to work within that process, to add journalistic skills (however we define them) to the streams of information that are flowing over us, is more crucial than ever, regardless of what we call the people who do that.

I think we have to resist the temptation to restrict our definition of journalism, just because there is some bad journalism out there (something there was plenty of before the Internet and blogging came along). As Jay Rosen argues, journalism gets better when more people do it, and we should think about how to make that easier, not harder.

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

17 Responses to “Defining journalism is a lot easier said than done”

  1. Mosaic Technology

    Excellent post Matthew. I think this issue expands far past this case and our definition of what defines a journalist is only going to become more complicated. There are entire courses at universities dedicated to defining “journalism”. For now, I imagine that the definition will be on a case by case basis until the professional journalism world decides how to regard bloggers and independent journalists.

  2. What people are calling “random acts of journalism” are what we used to call “contributions.” If you provide a journalist with your photos or video of a newsworthy event, you are a contributor to a a journalists story. But a journalist is someone who went to school and studied to learn how to interview, to research, to write and to cover a story properly, someone who knows the law pertaining to libel, the difference between a public and private person, and where to draw the line on what to write about.

  3. Andy Carvin

    Actually, I do both. I have all of my tweets archived, as well as Skype chats, etc, so I have copies of whatever info people send me. And confidentiality was a regular topic of discussion for Libya, and still is for my Syrian contacts.

    • Mathew Ingram

      Ah, thanks for pointing that out, Andy — archiving is smart, and of course you would have discussed confidentiality with some of your sources, who are no doubt concerned about their safety. I am glad to hear that, even if it weakens my argument :-)

      • Andy Carvin

        I honestly don’t care what people call me. I see myself as a real-time oral historian and storyteller. I draw more inspiration from Studs Terkel than probably anyone else. Some people consider it a type of anchor coverage; others call it DJing. All I know is that I’m ingesting large amounts of info in real time, figuring out what’s the most compelling, and sharing it in a why that I hope makes a coherent narrative. When needed, I work with my tweeps to figure out if something is BS or not. If someone doesn’t what to call that journalism, that’s their problem and not mine. I’m more than happy to go about my business without being pigeonholed.

  4. You’ve hit the key point–protecting “journalism” is about protecting free speech, especially as the commenter mentions stopping “cit-js” from recording events in public spaces. In that respect every citizen in protest is a journalist

  5. Scott O'Dell

    This issue has become particularly important in the domain of political protest. Recently, many self-described “independent journalists” were targeted for arrest while covering Occupy Wall Street protests without official press credentials.

    Written account of an arrestee:

    Video account of an observer:

  6. There’s an often overlooked piece of the First Amendment, which I believe has increasing relevance to this debate. While protections for free speech and freedom of the press remain paramount to journalists, we should also consider the importance of our freedom to assemble, especially at a time when many of the people doing the assembling are equipped with camera-ready smartphones.

    Many of the recent efforts to suppress the press involve preventing “citizen journalists” from taking pictures of events unfolding in public space. Others involve the kettling of people and the press into “free speech zones” away from the action and under the watchful eye of authorities.

    The debate over who is or isn’t a journalists, or what does or doesn’t constitute an act of journalism seems less relevant to me than protecting our right to peaceably assemble, smartphones in hand, ready to document, share and participate in newsworthy events.

    • I would completely agree with this, because the Bill of Rights was never meant to be 10 separate islands, but rather a cohesive unit of freedoms that are supposed to protect one another and protect the citizenry from potentially corrupt governments. The whole point of the rights of assembly and free speech are to ensure that a person who has gathered in protest against said government would also be protected in being able to deliver the facts, as they happen, to a larger audience so that the entirety of the citizenry would be aware of any potentially bad practices on the part either side. The whole point is to make sacrosanct the truth, no matter what the individual believes that truth to be.

  7. overviewproject

    “But I don’t think anyone would argue that what Carvin is doing isn’t journalism.”

    Actually, a few journalists have made exactly this argument to me, that Carvin isn’t a journalist. I find this short-sighted, but then, I’m also not particularly bothered by labels because — outside of the legal protections involved in being “a journalist” — it’s clear that a great many professions now contribute to bringing us all the information we need.