What is a journalist?
It’s funny that such a simple question is so difficult to answer – or to even talk about. After all, we do journalism every day, right? Surely we should be able to define what we do.
But what makes someone a journalist is one of those great unanswered questions in our profession. Many people argue that it should remain unanswered.
Most of us have a sense of what journalism is. We roll our eyes when we hear Jerry Springer referred to as a journalist. But what about talking-head political pundits? Or the folks at Entertainment Tonight? If we probe deep enough, most of us will find an example that rides the line between what we know to be journalism and what we know isn’t.
Most of the time, no definition is needed for us to do our work. It’s easier to let the readers or viewers choose where to go based on the work itself.
But sometimes the line between journalist and non-journalist becomes important, and the lack of a universal definition of “journalism” becomes a problem.
When journalists apply for press credentials, they often have to prove they meet the standards established by whoever is doing the credentialing. This means that “journalist” is defined by state and government offices, sports organizations, and Washington press galleries.
At SPJ, we’ve talked with government agencies in the process of defining who should be eligible for press passes. We’ve also gotten calls from free-lancers or online journalists who were denied access to events because they didn’t fit the definitions required for credentials.
The courts have been dancing around the meaning of “journalist” for some time, usually when writers invoke journalists’ privilege to protect the identities of their sources. The most recent high-profile case was that of Vanessa Leggett, the Houston writer who spent 168 days in jail rather than reveal her sources to prosecutors.
Perhaps the best argument for defining a journalist is the public confusion that comes with ambiguity. It’s no secret that public opinion of the media isn’t very high, and much of that comes from basic media illiteracy. While we roll our eyes at the suggestion that Jerry Springer is practicing journalism, not all members of the public make the distinction.
Even more damaging to our profession’s credibility is our inability to apply any kind of standards. Organizations like SPJ offer ethics codes that are suggested practice, but there is no enforcement that ensures that those standards are upheld across the profession.
It is for this very reason that many journalists are leery of an established definition for journalism. The enforcement of ethical standards would bring more uniformity – and possibly public respect – for our profession. But it also comes dangerously close to the idea of licensing journalists, which many fear would stifle creative freedom and violate the First Amendment.
In many countries, a government-issued license defines a journalist. Unfortunately, this system lends itself to a government using that license to control content.
What’s interesting about journalism (in the United States, at least) is that it’s not necessarily the rights we have that make us special; under the First Amendment, the rights to free speech and a free press are protected for everyone. Journalists, though, claim to use those rights for a specific purpose. We have an unstated agreement with our readers, viewers and listeners that we are providing them with reliable, accurate, and fair information.
It’s the responsibility involved in our work that makes us different. It’s intent that defines a journalist.
Unfortunately, these intangibles are difficult to measure, which really provides few answers to the practical dilemmas that require a more standardized definition.
On Page 10, we take a look at some of the issues surrounding the question: “What is a journalist?” It’s a complex question, and one that warrants some discussion – even if we don’t reach a final answer.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.