Who’s A Journalist?

The question is posed by Dan Gillmor in Salon. He expands on the question: “What should we call the people who are creating valuable new information in the new-media ecosystem?”

Part of the reason for his query is that he is close to finishing a book called Mediactive that sets out to “persuade people to become much more active users, not passive consumers, of media.”

On a practical level, Gillmor has a major point when he notes that how you define a journalist has real-word impact. “So-called shield laws, for example, aim to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists whom they tell about government or corporate wrongdoing. Some states specify who counts as a journalist, which leaves out a huge range of people who effectively practice journalism nowadays,” he writes.

Aside from that, I think Gillmor is making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill. As in earlier post here at Celleno when I considered a similar question, doesn’t it come down partly to the product rather than the “producer.” A point Gillmor himself recognizes when he writes: People often ask who, in the anyone-can-publish world, is a journalist? I tell them it’s the wrong question. The right one: What is journalism?”

In my post Bloggers as Journalists I wrote: “Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.”

And not just bloggers, of course. My former Cato Institute colleague Radley Balko was producing brilliant journalism at Cato when he was meant to be a research scholar or some such thing — I have forgotten his official title. His work on no-knock raids was the kind of old-fashioned investigative journalism that won people Pulitzers!

Gillmor doesn’t like the word “journalist” even when it comes to old media. “I share some disdain for the word. When I was a reporter I called myself a reporter. When I was a columnist I called myself a columnist. Calling myself a journalist, which I did from time to time, tended to make me feel like I was pretending to a higher role than the craft, however vital and honorable it may be, merited.” My father — a London newspaperman — had a similar dislike for describing himself as a journalist. But I never have — it is a useful catch-all word for the different functions of the profession. One can then always narrow it done after. And surely the same can hold true for new media practitioners. Can’t we call them online journalists as opposed purely to print journalists? Or multi-media journalists, etc.

By using new terms don’t we add to the rift between new and old media, allowing some of the old to denigrate or downplay the new, and the new not appreciate that some of the approaches, standards, etc of the old remain vaild and important?

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