No more bouncers at the journalism club door

[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.

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Comments

  1. Tim

    Nice. I wasn’t sure there was anything left to say on this topic, but you have at least deftly summarized and highlighted key points. Loved the WH press conference example.

  2. hey scott -
    you write: “We should stop playing bouncer at the gates of the journalism club.”

    since you’ve embraced the concept of unpacking the rhetoric, i’ll ask: who is the ‘we’ in that sentence?

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    It was a Law School conference, with questions framed in terms of legal issues, so I think the specific “we” was “lawyers” or “The Law” here.

    But it could really be “anyone who is trying to exclude people from publication/conversation/legal protection by defining them as not-journalists.”

  4. Solitude

    “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? ”

    By those standards, The New York Times would have been shut down after the Walter Duranty fabrications came to light.

    Not a bad thing really.

  5. Brilliant essay, Scott.

    For many years, when I’ve encountered people (usually pro journos who work for mainstream news orgs) who are complaining that person X isn’t a “real journalist” because they (blog / don’t work for a mainstream news org / don’t follow conventions of objectivity / dress fashionably / etc…), my comeback has been:

    “OK, show me your license to be a journalist. Right now. Got it in your wallet?”

    …and then: “Hah! RIGHT! You don’t have one! Because in this country (at least so far), ANYONE can commit an act of journalism. And a lot of “real journalists” (by your criteria) have fought hard to protect that principle. So STFU.)

    …But then, I run a blog called Contentious, so I’m liable to say things like that….

    :-)

    Well done, Scott. Now I’ll toss them a link to your essay, too :-)

    - Amy Gahran

  6. Scott Rosenberg

    Timeliness: admittedly a relative and potentially vague term. It can encompass everything from the Bloomberg terminal’s “every second counts” market-timed information to, I suppose, reporting on decades-old controversies that somehow bear on the present. But the greater the distance from “now,” the more likely it is that what you’re doing is really history and not journalism. There’s a reason for the “jour” in journalism — it’s all about “the day.” So even when we dig up old controversies, it’s usually with an eye to some present-day issue. If there’s no impact on the present then it’s hard for me to see how you’d call it journalism.

    Hope that helps! I certainly don’t think “timeliness” is a simple or cut-and-dried term — but it’s one we have to reckon with in this field. Typically, to be sure, today’s journalism errs more in over-emphasizing timeliness — look, ma, we got the scoop first! — than in neglecting it. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it as a fundamental characteristic of “doing journalism.”

  7. I like how close we came in our definitions of this thing that not many people try to define. Here’s mine, from a few years ago, making a similar case to the one you’re making here: “The acts of gathering information, synthesizing, and disseminating that information publicly in an essentially verifiable report.”

    I deemphasized the timeliness bit, because I’d happily grant historians all the protections we grant to journalists. Books by Robert Caro and Jared Diamond helped me understand our world better than most of what appears in my local paper in a year, and if they ever needed First Amendment protections to pursue that work, I’d gladly accede.

    But I like your definition, and I completely agree with your argument. Journalism, not journalists. And once we win this little rhetorical skirmish, then we can start talking about what constitutes great journalism. Can’t wait to have that conversation.

  8. While we’re on this topic, we should start a campaign to correct this travesty. The definition of journalism that the American Heritage Dictionary’s been peddling for several years now (I think I first looked this up in 2005) is incredibly outmoded, and I’d say far inferior to either of ours:

    journalism n. (jûr’nə-lĭz’əm)The collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles in newspapers and magazines and in radio and television broadcasts.Material written for publication in a newspaper or magazine or for broadcast.The style of writing characteristic of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.Newspapers and magazines.An academic course training students in journalism.Written material of current interest or wide popular appeal.

    Seriously? Journalism is a “style of writing,” with “little attempt at analysis”? Newspapers and magazines themselves constitute journalism. Really? Really? Journalism classes get to be defined as journalism, anything that’s (1) written and (2) popular gets included, but there’s nary a mention of something that hasn’t been printed or broadcast? This definition (current as of 2009) must be stopped.

  9. SoCalGal

    Journalism is in serious decline today. Why? Because the profession of journalism lets every Tom, Dick ‘n Harry call him/herself a journalist. Wait a minute, journalism isn’t a profession; it’s a J-O-B.

    Here’s the bottom of the barrel, yet she’s a “journalist” just as you are, Mr. Rosenberg. (After reading her article, you’ll no doubt want to take a shower.)

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/the_freak_of_the_week_l0a8Hm4OcLKKWaeakydEnN

    Professor John C. Merrill of the University of Missouri writes:

    [quote] Journalism around the world is in a chaotic, fragmented, unethical and largely anti-social state. [...] Journalism is losing its appeal to serious, moral persons and is becoming simply another business enterprise. The “bottom line” has become the objective in the media world—not public enlightenment and social progress.

    It has become evident that the gulf between freedom and responsibility is as wide as ever. There need not be an incompatibility between the two; a free media system can also be responsible and qualitative. Under the present systems in the world, however, this is virtually impossible.

    What is needed is a fusion—a dialectic that brings freedom and responsibility together. This can only be done by professionalizing journalism. In other words, making journalism a true profession—self-controlling and providing high standards—for the members of the profession.

    Licensing, yes. Entrance exams, yes. Quality control, yes. A method of expelling unprofessional members, yes. Continuing education, yes. Mastery of a body of knowledge, yes. But all of these things would be done by the profession itself. No outside interference. No external control. The profession would be the authority. The profession would be free of outside interference. The profession would regulate itself, choose its members, and limit their activities. In short the profession would be free and at the same time would set standards and control itself.

    The crux of the media ethics problem, contrary to much academic opinion, is simple. We have generally believed that ethical action can come only from autonomous or freely determined persons. We have come to assume that there must be no coercion of the mass communicator for ethics to kick in. Therefore if the communicator is under some kind of external control, ethics becomes a kind of non-concept, not applicable. And so arises the media ethics problem. It seems that freedom speaks louder than ethics. If I (or my mass medium) is to be ethical, it must be autonomous in its decision-making. [quote]

    So, no, not just anyone can do journalism, in my opinion. When there’s no bouncer at the door, what you get is Andrea Peyser. Ugh.

  10. A lot of people are blindly kidding themselves.

    And it’s not just wannabe, pretend journalists.

    If you’re waiting tables, but earn a small amount from acting as an extra in commercials… then you are a waiter, not an actor. Accept it.

    If you are a secretary, but earn a few bucks as a promotional model… you, my dear, are a secretary.

    If you are a lawyer, but own a Harley, you, my friend are a lawyer.

    You are not an outlaw biker.

    See the pattern here? Let’s try a couple more, just to make sure you have the hang of this.

    If you’re an administrative clerk, but sell your landscape oil paintings at the annual art and craft fair, then you are an administrative clerk.

    You might, really, really want to be these other things.

    Everyone needs a dream.

    But you need to know the difference between dreams and reality.

    Unless your work pays the majority of your bills, then um, you need to accept that is not your occupation.

    Having a video camera on your iphone, doesn’t make you an independent film-maker.

    See how this works?

    Changing the oil and spark plugs on your car doesn’t make you a “mechanic”.

    Doesn’t matter how good a job you do on the spark plugs. It’s still amateur fiddling, even if you’ve done a really good job.

    EXERCISE:

    1) How might these examples relate to people who have blogs that make a few pennies, or twitter accounts that make nothing? Are they journalists?

    NB If you’re still confused, here’s a tip. Bring your blogger/wordpress blog or twitter posts to a family barbecue and try telling them you’re a journalist now. Their reaction will steer you right.

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