[I’m posting a lightly edited text of the talk I gave Friday at Stanford Law School’s “Future of Journalism: Unpacking the Rhetoric” conference. As you will see, I took seriously the concept of unpacking the rhetoric, and tried to answer the questions on the event’s agenda.]
I’ve been asked to defend the tenet “We are all journalists now.” But there are so many questions in those five words!
Who is we? What is a journalist? When is now? And, most importantly, for those of you whose memories extend back to the Clinton administration, what is the meaning of is — or in this case, “are”?
We aren’t all journalists now. My wonderful parents? they’re not journalists. They have a computer that’s connected to the Internet. But they’re not journalists. My ten-year-old twins? They aren’t, either. Not yet, anyway.
Am I? I’ve been a writer for 30 years. Worked for a newspaper for 10, a web magazine for another 10. But I never went to journalism school. Never been a member of SPJ or any other professional organization.
So I’m not happy with “we are all journalists now.” Let’s give it an edit. Let’s change it to “Now, anyone can do journalism.”
So what have I done here? First, I’ve moved from focusing on the role, the label, the professional imprimatur of the word “journalist,” to the verb, the activity, the pursuit. I’ve switched from talking about an individual’s identification with a professional label to pointing our attention to an activity.
Second: I’ve changed the statement from one about static definitions of states of being to one about the potential for participation.
We’re still going to have to address the fact that the “we” in the first version and the “anyone” in the second still ignore those reaches of our society and world where the tools of the Internet remain either inaccessible or unfamiliar. So we probably need to do one more tweak of the wording, maybe to “Now, anyone who’s online can do journalism” — or “Now, anyone on the network can do journalism.”
Now these are tenets I can get behind.
Still, we’re left this term “doing journalism.” What are we talking about here?
Here’s my take: You’re doing journalism when you’re delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public.
Let’s break it down.
First part: journalism demands the pursuit of an accurate and timely account of some event.
If you don’t care about accuracy, then you’re doing fiction.
If you don’t care about timeliness, then you’re doing history.
second part: journalism demands “publication”: a presentation of that accurate and timely account to some public.
Publication, of course, is what the Internet has put in everybody’s hands. But publication, the act of making something public, is a spectrum:
If you’re keeping the account to yourself, it’s obviously private.
If you’re posting it on an open web page, it’s obviously public.
Charging for it or not charging for it is mostly irrelevant.
And paying the salary of the person doing it is similarly irrelevant, I’d argue.
If you’re a professional journalist, then you care about being paid. But nothing in my definition — “delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public” — says anything about a paycheck.
Now, traditionally we’ve viewed stuff that’s “available to anyone for a fee” to be “public enough”” for journalism. You pay for a newspaper or magazine, but the contents are still public.
But what if you publish information to some small network of subscribers who are paying huge fees for what they hope will be market-moving information? Is that journalism? Not sure….
At the other end of the spectrum, we have information that’s posted on semi-private social networks. Is it journalism when only your Facebook friends can see it? If not, why not? Do we say that publication to an audience limited by some fee is still journalism, but publication to an audience limited by some social-networking standard isn’t? Maybe we can talk more about that.
So let me quickly turn to the agenda questions. And because I’m a blogger, I’m going to take them in reverse order.
Third agenda question: “Can we still differentiate professional journalists under the law when there is no clear way to define what a journalist is?””
This prompts me to ask, what social end is served by having the law differentiate professional journalists from the rest of us?
I can really only think of two needs in this area. Maybe you can suggest more.
One is about practical matters of access — apportioning seats at press conferences and the like.
The other is about protection for journalists doing sensitive investigative work — protection from retribution by powerful institutions, for them and for their sources.
So how do we differentiate journalists now?
There are just a handful of ways. And none of them is any good.
There’s government accreditation.
I’ll defer to the legal experts, but it strikes me that the First Amendment makes this a very dodgy approach. Maybe there’s a place for it in managing access to official events, White House press briefings and such, but even there it’s messy.
Then there’s the reporter with the press card, who’s supposed to be able to walk past police lines. But those reporters rarely cover these little local crime stories any more. And the hyperlocal blogger who is covering the story probably doesn’t have a press card. So if the goal is to hold the police accountable, then we probably want to get the government out of this business. Furthermore, as we heard from Amy Goodman last night, when the police are about to handcuff you for no good reason, that press card seems to lose its magic powers anyway.
There’s employer-based accreditation.
You work for a news organization, you’re a journalist. What if like me you’re a freelancer — or, as I’ve taken to calling myself, a private practice journalist? What if you self-publish on a website that makes no money but has thousands of readers? And what’s a news organization, anyway? If any organization that publishes is a news organization, we’re in trouble. Because now any organization can do publishing.
How about accreditation by professional organization? This is another punt. How does this professional organization determine your professional status? It can turn to the employment standard — but we just decided that’s full of holes. Or it can take all comers, which as far as I can tell is what the SPJ does — their membership application doesn’t seem to require much of anything.
What does this leave us with? “Show us your clips”?
So on this question — can the law still differentiate professional journalists — I come down strongly on the “no” side. The law should give up. The law should stop trying to protect journalists, and instead protect acts of journalism. Any time someone is pursuing an accurate and timely account of some event to present to some public, he or she should be protected by the law in whatever ways we now protect professional journalists.
As for credentials at White House press briefings, I have three ideas: If you’re a social democrat, you’ll want to just put these out for a vote. Let the people decide! Free marketeers will want to go the auction route: let those who want to cover the President bid for the privilege. Economists may want to try the random walk approach: just hand out White House press room seats by lottery. It might still be an improvement on what we have now.
Second agenda question: How do we maintain accuracy and accountability in reporting when anyone can claim to be a journalist?
First off, this question presupposes that we maintained accuracy and accountability in reporting back when anyone *couldn’t* claim to be a journalist. That’s a much wider discussion, but I think it needs to be said.
My answer is: if you claim to be a journalist, your work can and should be judged by the standards of journalism. Are the facts right? Does the story you tell track a recognizable reality? Does it serve your public in some way? Does that public have access to channels of feedback that hold you accountable?
These standards are what matter. If you meet them, then I don’t care whether your business card says you are a journalist.
Sadly, there are plenty of people walking around with journalism business cards whose work doesn’t meet those standards. So every time we ask this question, “How do we maintain accuracy and accountability in reporting when anyone can claim to be a journalist?” we should also ask about how we can hold the existing population of professional journalists to the same standards.
Often the feedback loop for accuracy and accountability is much tighter and more efficient in the informal wilds of the Web than it is in more traditional newsrooms. Just visit the website for your local daily newspaper and try to figure out how to report a mistake. Look for that tiny link to “Corrections” in the page footer and pray that it takes you to a page where you can actually report an error.
The first agenda question: “Is the Web truly more democratic, or does it reinforce the old ecosystem in a new medium?”
“Democratic”” is a very big word. If we measure “democratic” in terms of raw participation, then plainly the answer is yes.
More people today are doing journalism, responding to journalism and criticizing journalism than ever before.
This question gets trickier if we attempt to measure results or outcomes. Does the Web-based system of information distribution actually enable the people to rule more effectively, to exert its will more fully? Does widening the opportunity to do journalism actually make democracy run better?
My gut says yes, but clearly the answer is still very much in the air. And I hope we’ll talk a lot more about this, because it’s far more consequential than the argument about credentials.
This morning John Nichols said something that I want to repeat now: he said, “Most of the people who cover politics don’t know anything about net neutrality,” so the coverage is lousy. That’s quite an admission, I think. And it’s an example of a phenomenon that helps explain why so many blogs do such a better job covering niche subjects than the general news media does.
The phenomenon is this: There’s an inverse relationship between the amount of knowledge you have on a given topic and your level of satisfaction with the media coverage of that topic.
More simply: the better you know a subject the more you think its coverage stinks.
So this model is broken. We need to move the knowledge closer to the coverage. And the more inclusive our definition of journalist is, the more of that knowledge we can actually bring into the coverage.
We should stop playing bouncer at the gates of the journalism club. We should be willing to welcome anyone who sallies forth to do journalism as long as they arrive somewhere in the right vicinity.
UPDATE: Thoughtful comment on this post from over at the Open Salon version of this blog, by Rob St. Amant:
I’m reminded of what I’ve read about the advent of photography, when some thought that it would mean the end of the art of painting. If anyone with the proper equipment could take a picture of a scene, what would it mean to be an artist? Of course, that didn’t actually happen. But we still ask the question “What is art?” today. I think there are similarities to the current situation with journalism. Anyone can do journalism in the same sense that anyone can do art, in principle, and we might argue about whether any specific instance is an act of journalism (or art) or not. We’ll still be able to point to individuals and their work as good or bad examples of journalists and journalism, even if the boundaries have become fluid.