PBS MediaShift | Free Press

Media lawyer and University of Dayton assistant professor Jonathan Peters and Edson C. Tandoc Jr., of the Missouri School of Journalism tried to answer the question "Who is a journalist?" through a new study. The two "culled a variety of sources that conceptualize a journalist, and they analyzed each one to identify its elements." In the study (which you can read here), the authors write they "do not offer a normative definition, but we do offer normative comments on the descriptive definition." Such a description is timely, they write, as the U.S. considers a reporter's shield law.

They consulted three "domains" -- academic, legal, industry -- for commonalities in definitions of journalism, among them federal laws about professions, state shield laws and the criteria of journalism organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists and the Regional Reporters Association. Most centered around activities, output and what they call the "social role" of journalists (e.g., being a watchdog). Here's the definition they came up with:

"A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating (activities) news and information (output) to serve the public interest (social role)."

They also argue against their definition, which they stress is one that "unifies the conceptions of the three domains and the dimensions and indicators that others have used to define a journalist."

By referring to employment, however, the definition delivers a fatal blow to the people engaging in many new forms of journalism. The definition would not include unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists who gather, process, and disseminate news and information on matters of public concern -- because they do not derive their primary source of livelihood from their journalistic activities. To the extent the definition is used to decide who may claim the legal privileges of journalists, it puts a large number of actors in the journalism ecosystem in the position of fulfilling community needs for news, however well the actors do so, without the assurances that keep traditional journalists safe when their work provokes a backlash. That is unwise.

Such a definition may even "deter innovation," they write. As news forms evolve, "it is possible that the people behind them will not qualify for narrowly drawn shield protections."

In a paper that also came out this month, Free Press campaign director Josh Stearns says we should strive to define acts of journalism rather than journalists themselves. Ethics and service are just as important as behavior, Stearns argues, and the latter is more important than beliefs. A "functional" definition "may lack poetry, but it provides a flexible litmus test," Stearns writes.

Whatever happens, he says, the debate needs more input from people who are neither journalists nor politicians:

People everywhere have a deep stake in this debate, both as media makers and as news consumers, and we should engage them in these conversations more deeply. They are not just our audience, but also our allies in the fight ahead.

Related: Senators can’t agree on who’s a journalist