Am I a Journalist?23 August 2007
There’s been a good bit of discussion these days regarding journalism — what is it, who’s doing it, are bloggers ‘journalists’ — and it’s got me thinking. OK, honestly, my first thought was, “It’s a semantic discussion, and that’s stupid.” And that’s true. Call yourself what you want, people will nitpick over syntax, and I will sit over here and drink my coffee. And I’ll still believe that is the answer to the question of whether or not bloggers are journalists.
But I don’t think that’s the real question. I think the real question is, “Is the writing/reporting done by bloggers as important/useful/respectable/etc. as that of reporters and editors working in the conventional news business?” The answer to this is much more complex. One point to get out of the way right off is that the conventional news business has sunk to a profoundly low level in many places. If a blogger wants to associate herself with what mainstream media has become, then good for her. But let’s consider also that there is, in fact, some really good journalism going on in some places. That there are reporters, editors, and photographers who really do want to write well for the communities they serve. That there really are journalists out there who aren’t manipulated by advertisers, who work very hard to avoid bias, who are trustworthy, and as such, have good connections. There are journalists who are willing to spend time at libraries, in archives, in people’s offices, and out on the street to really get news — and not just news, but news and context. Then we pair these journalists up with editors and fact-checkers, and there we have some serious media. Excellent reportage, good storytelling, clean grammar. This is sort of the pinnacle of journalism — what society seems to want journalists to be. (Certainly what I wish the media was today in greater measure.)
Some of these journalists blog. The fact that they blog doesn’t make them journalists, but journalists who blog. There may also be bloggers who do the sort of stuff I mention above, even though they don’t work in the mainstream media. I can’t think of any good examples right now, but I do leave open the possibility that such a person exists. (Feel free to comment with suggestions.) But we still haven’t touched on another important definition of a journalist, and that is, what is a journalist’s role in her community? Whether her community is Peoria, Illinois, or the reality-distortion field that is the blogosphere, she brings a certain value to that community by doing what she does, and has a certain obligation to the community that she serves. Some folks have articulated quite nicely what those roles and responsibilities are. In the introduction to their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel list “some clear principles that journalists agree on — and that citizens have a right to expect.”
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- Its first loyalty is to citizens.
- Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
- Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Do most bloggers do this? No. A vast number of self-proclaimed citizen journalists don’t, in fact, meet most of these precepts (especially 2, 3, and 8 — even TalkingPointsMemo doesn’t allow public comments on its feature articles as far as I can tell, only on its blog posts). Does that mean these bloggers aren’t journalists? Nope. A blogger can surely be a journalist. Some blog posts on some blogs are definitely good examples of solid journalism. But as I have told my son on occasion, “You’re not a bad boy, you’re a good boy who did a pretty rotten thing.” Or remember the old apothegm, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.” You don’t have to go to J-school to be a journalist. You don’t even have to work for someone who pays you and reads your stuff and then publishes it. But you do have to ensure that your writing consistently adheres to journalistic principles (including, but not limited to, the Sigma Delta Chi code of ethics).
Journalism doesn’t sell, though. It’s not sexy. When done right, it requires an investment of time and thought on the part of the consumer, and lots of people simply don’t care to think anymore. Kind of like public schools — everyone knows they have value, but no one’s really willing to pay for them. Other stuff’s more important, right? Like a fancy iPhone. So I can read my blogs on the go. (No, I don’t really have an iPhone. But I have been known to read blogs on my mobile phone. It is 2007, after all.)
So, to finally answer my own question that I posed in the title of this post. Am I a journalist? Yeah. Yes, I think I am. I spent ten years working for newspapers and magazines in various editorial capacities — from ‘abstracter of press releases’ to ‘reporter’ to ‘fact-checker’ to ‘features editor’ to ‘editor’ (and a few titles in between). I understand the importance of journalistic ethics, and responsibility to readers. But my blog isn’t a place where I try to practice journalism. I rant and rave about my wacky opinions. Sure, there might be a fact or two in there, but really, I’m just shilling for my perspective on the mortal coil. And journalism that ain’t. Even when it’s done by a journalist.