I'm working with some colleagues on an article for an academic media journal that has posed several authors the question: "Who is a journalist?" Here's a first swipe at an answer:
The question that matters from an ethical and social perspective is not "Who is a journalist?" but rather is "What is journalism and why is it important?"
Obviously we are raising the question because of all the confusion and mistrust today surrounding publishing formats that we used to quickly identify as being responsible sources for news -- e.g., newspapers, the nightly network news, and weekly news magazines. In recent years all of those outlets have turned more and more to publishing entertainment features, consumer "lifestyle" articles, and polarizing opinion pieces as a way to maintain an increasingly disloyal audience base. Then the Internet came along with its near-infinite number of new sources for public information and "news," further confusing people about where they could go for information they could trust. And finally, in recent years, one after another credibility scandal has rocked previously trusted mainstream news institutions like The New York Times, CBS, and USA Today.
So the question "Who is a journalist?" is another way of saying "Who can you trust?" But to repeat myself, that's not the right question. As Jeremy pointed out, it's not just that ordinary folks now are writing and publishing material they call "journalism," it's that previously trusted news institutions are publishing material that really isn't journalism -- at least not journalism as it should be defined. It's that definition, what journalism is, that counts.
We've defined journalism as information that citizens need to be free and self-governing. If one accepts that definition, as we do, the answer to the "Who is a journalist?" is dead easy -- it's anyone who writes and reports that kind of information. Then you get to the deeper question, the one that really matters: "What kind of information do citizens need to be free and self-governing?" In my view it's essential that we explicitly make clear that journalism needs the reporting of facts to be called journalism. The essential journalism text is a report on the present conditions of society. In very basic terms, this is exactly what kind of information citizens need to be free and self-government -- i.e., factual reports on society's present conditions. Any kind of publication or radio or TV program that doesn't have such a report at its core, can't be called journalism. A report is fundamentally distinct from both 1) an entertainment, which uses fictional techniques to attract audience, and which doesn’t limit its subject to present conditions of society; and 2) editorials and opinions, which aim not to report current facts but rather to persuade the audience to adopt certain beliefs and points of view.
So now, who is a journalist? Our new answer is, any person who offers factual reports on the present conditions of society, because that is the kind of information that citizens need to be free and self-governing.
Let me quickly offer yet another reason why "Who is a journalist?" is a vexing question today. That reason is that every technology implies a certain polity, although whether that polity imagines itself, much less acts in a coherent and unified manner, has always been problematic in media history.
Put another way, contemporary conditions have raised in a dramatic new form the same riddle that has occupied many journalists and scholars of journalism throughout the 20th century -- i.e., is there such a thing as "the public?" Our definition of journalism assumes that there is, or at least that there is a definable group of "citizens" out there who want the information they need to be free and self-governing, and furthermore have the will and the means to use such information to make good decisions on public policies. But the vagaries of whether such a group really exists, has been debated by the likes of Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, James Carey, Michael Schudson, and many others over the years. And if the public was a "phantom" in Lippmann's day, how much more so it is in 2006! Do we have one public, or rather many publics? Lobbyists, PR companies and interest groups have effectively created many separate groups of "publics" that individually influence and shape public policy, far more than a single American "public" does. The Internet has only exacerbated this trend towards aiming slices of information at narrow groups of specialists; while at the same time appearing to offer a possible counter-trend in the form of "citizen journalism." Are we arguing in effect that citizen journalism could actually, to use John Dewey's phrase, transform the "public" from its present "formless and shadowy state" into a clear and visible unity?
Here is another juncture where the global nature of the Internet, email, and web-based communication is an important issue to raise. Because the polity that the Internet and web technology implies is a global one. But does this public or polity actually exist in any meaningful, coherent, organized sense? The reconstitution of the "phantom public" puzzle from a national to a global scale, crossing many datelines and international borders, raises all sorts of interesting questions that are relevant to answering "Who is a journalist?" and "What is journalism?" in a globalized world.
Finally, let me offer one last rephrasing or deepening of the original question, "Who is a journalist?" which we haven't yet explored, but which is in my view very central to the whole subject. And that is, can the kind of information that citizens need to be free and self-governing practicably be produced by individuals who work by themselves, as opposed to working in the context of journalistic institutions? Because the fact is that institutional support offers not only individual journalists, but the journalism they produce both as individuals and teams, a great many advantages that individual journalists have a difficult time mustering. These advantages can include the financial resources to travel and spend time investigating issues in depth; enriching exposure to a wide range of skills and perspectives gathered in an institutional setting; editing backup and support; and legal and institutional protections against harassment and lawsuits.
One of the tragedies of recent contemporary journalism is the decline not only of investigative journalism, but of many others kinds of civic-minded reporting, which has steadily been eroded as managers trim staff and budget, and increase entertainment and lifestyle reportage. Individual "citizen journalists" have certainly shown an idealistic interest in creating a more public-spirited journalism, but will new sources of financial and other resources be able to flow behind these journalists, in a way that replicates institutional support? Will citizen journalists ultimately band together into new types of institutions, as a way to concentrate such resources? If so, how will these new institutions be able to avoid the very problems that undermined good journalism in the older and now-defunct institutions?
It's this final possibility, that whole new edifices will be built on the wrong premises, that returns me to my original proposition, that the truly important question is not "who is a journalist?" but rather "what is journalism?"
Because what journalism is, not who produces it, is what matters. It’s the "what it is" that needs to be nurtured and protected for the sake of democracy, and not the "who it is."
Journalism is not entertainment. It's not commodified data of any kind. It's not punditry. It's not classified ads, or press releases turned into front page stories, or even comics or sports stories. It's the daily non-fiction literature of reportage that a society must consume in order to know itself and to know the way things are right now, which is the basic condition of real security.