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Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do — not something you are

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There’s been a lot of debate lately over the question of who qualifies as a journalist — an issue most recently flagged by the public editor of the New York Times, after the paper referred to a reporter as an “activist” rather than a journalist. The same charge has been levelled at Glenn Greenwald based on his reporting about former CIA staffer Edward Snowden, with some accusing the Guardian writer of being an advocate rather than a journalist. So who should qualify as a journalist? This is the wrong question.

As NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan notes in her post, there has been an attempt by many traditional media outlets — including the New York Times itself — to slot Greenwald as a “blogger,” and therefore somehow less worthy of respect or credibility (or legal protection) than a journalist would be. Journalism professor Jay Rosen mentioned the same thing in a recent post, arguing that critics like “Meet The Press” host David Gregory have been trying to “read Greenwald out” of the journalistic fraternity.

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This is more than just navel-gazing by the media. As I tried to point out recently, the issue of who is a blogger and who is a journalist could determine how Greenwald and others are treated by the courts — and by the government itself — as the leak investigations continue. That’s why accusations like the one Edward Jay Epstein made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about how Greenwald may have “aided and abetted” Snowden (a piece that led to a heated discussion between journalist professor Jeff Jarvis, Michael Wolff and News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti, which Jarvis turned into a Storify collection) are so important.

Yes, journalists can also be advocates

For some, the idea of a journalist being a passionate advocate for a cause is anathema, since it goes against the principle of objectivity that we associate with journalism. But as Matt Taibbi argued in a recent piece for Rolling Stone magazine — and Jarvis also argued in a recent blog post on the topic — almost all of what we call journalism is advocacy of some sort or another. Some journalists are more obvious or transparent about what they are advocating for than others, a principle that has led media theorists like David Weinberger to argue that “transparency is the new objectivity.” As Taibbi put it:

“All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC… or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald.”

In fact, some of the most famous journalists of our time have been passionate advocates for something, even if that something was just exposing government corruption or telling the truth about an event, or bearing witness to something important. People like I.F. Stone, a man who in some sense was the prototypical political blogger long before blogs were invented — since he published his muckraking in his own newsletter rather than a traditional publication. Or Seymour Hersh, who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or even Watergate superstars Woodward and Bernstein.

Sullivan argues that one definition of a “real journalist” might be “one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press.” But as former O’Reilly Media writer and open-government advocate Alexander Howard and others noted on Twitter, this is too narrow a description, since it focuses exclusively on a journalist in opposition to government — and thereby leaves out many journalists who pursue stories that expose corporate corruption or malfeasance in other spheres.

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The bottom line, as Jarvis has pointed out — and before him Dan Gillmor, author of “We The Media” and the man who originally described the virtues of “the people formerly known as the audience” — is that the term journalist no longer describes a specific group of practitioners with specialized skills or tools, a kind of priesthood that is only open to a select few. Instead, the web and real-time social media have enabled anyone to become a journalist even for a short time, and even if only in a limited way. Now we see more “random acts of journalism” coming from ordinary citizens.

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This makes it extremely difficult to define who is a journalist any more — and that in turn has legal ramifications not just for Greenwald but for everyone who wants to publish their thoughts freely. Some U.S. legislators want to follow the bad example of other countries and have the government decide who qualifies as a journalist, a prospect that should fill journalists of any stripe with fear. And even the admirable idea of a “shield law” for journalists becomes a sticky proposition, since that would require defining who is entitled to protection and who isn’t.

A blurry line between citizen and journalist

In cases involving bloggers, some judges have wisely decided that neither the government nor the court should be in the position of having to decide who is protected by the First Amendment and thereby entitled to the “freedom of the press.” With the explosion of networked communication tools that we write about all the time at GigaOM, anyone is capable of becoming a journalist at any time — and theoretically that means anyone should have the protection of the First Amendment when they are doing this. As the U.S. Court of Appeals put it in 2011:

“Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw [and] news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”

And isn’t that what the framers of the Constitution would have wanted? At the time that document was written, the “press” consisted of pamphleteers more like I.F. Stone (i.e. bloggers) than the New York Times. That may make it difficult — or even impossible — to conclusively define who is a journalist and who isn’t, but in the end I think we wind up with a media sphere that is more open (and yes, a lot more chaotic), and in the long run that is likely to be a good thing.

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Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user sskennel

14 Responses to “Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do — not something you are”

  1. This debate is nonsense. Of course anyone who wants to report on anything is a journalist, period. The discussion itself will lead to the tyranny of licensing or some other threat to freedom. And why does “adversarial” have to be part of any deal. Is someone who loves the government and reports good news about the government any less of a journalist?

    The medium of reportage (eg. blogs) should have nothing to do with it.

    This is a sinister debate that will not end well for anyone if it continues.

  2. Missing from this piece are the expectations of “the people formerly known as the audience”. Guardian readers are unlikely to be shocked by Greenwald’s political slant. Hell, they probably read the paper hoping to find that kind of spin.
    The journalist/advocate issue is much more troubling on the BBC publicly funded news channels. One of the conditions in the BBC’s Charter for its privileged and powerful position in UK political life is fairness and objectivity in its reporting. And until recently that was the perceived standard expected by its diverse national audiences.
    Nevertheless some presenters now clearly signal their political preferences on air. Why? It is for promotion purposes by signalling internally that they are fully signed up to the BBC groupthink that sees the falling circulation Guardian as defacto house house rag? Not all advocates are pure of heart.

  3. Toby Lewis

    Great piece, or should I say blog? The legal argument is complex, given the very generous privileges to defame the US Constitution grants its citizens, speaking as an envious UK-trained journalist. I think bloggers and journalists should have similar rights, but perhaps you need to move down a path of professionalising blogging, which seems to have happened in any “blogs” which have ended up being media businesses. Yet perhaps you need to qualify the Constitutional Rights, with greater clarity on steps journalists should go through to break scoops. For example, I am sure Ingram and the PaidContent writers give right to reply as do other serious blogs like its sister GigaOm and TechCrunch. Given this is a Guardian story, presumably it had similar involvement from lawyers that Nick Evans’s News Corp pieces did.

    At the end of the day, any one who can break as big a scoop as the one Greenwald has deserves the title “journalist”. I suspect many Journal journalists are envious of the waves made by him and Assange a few years ago. However, whether these unconventional types have legal protection should be dependent on the laws which have been broken.

  4. Terry Heaton

    Great summary of an increasingly annoying argument. The pamphleteers were the first journalists — or the first to practice journalism — and it’s pretty hard to imagine the art without those deep roots. Can’t we all just get along?

  5. The first amendment does not mention “journalists”. It protects ALL citizens from the US government wanting to inhibit their expression.

    Why that seems to be news to so many media figures is anyone’s guess.