Study attempts to define journalists — should we define acts of journalism instead?

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

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • rogerwilson

    Jason,
    We can agree that what is at issue is an action not a status. In the USA, six actions are specifically excluded from legal limitation by the first amendment to our constitution which reads:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
    religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
    speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and
    to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    In popular opinion and legal precedent we have conflated “the press” as a communication technology with ‘the press” as a particular class of people engaged in journalism. Your notion of special protections which journalists may claim is derived from this conflation. “The press” in context of the first amendment is a means of expression, like speech and assembly and it is a means available to all.

    The confusion stems from our appreciation of the role of journalism and journalistic enterprises collectively known as “the press” or “the fourth estate” in reducing the abuse of power by governments. The confusion gets dangerous when the establishment press gets too comfortable and becomes an unwitting party to abuse. Thus it is key that we defend the act of communication regardless of who exercises it.

    The focus on protecting journalism is misplaced. We need to protect the leakers. And we need to limit the ability of government to keep anything secret in the same manner that, in the USA, claims of libel by public officials are more limited than those of a private individual.

    Members of “the press” naturally like the idea that they are special. But the cold and harsh reality of the political economic equation is this: The people’s desire for truth about their government can only be met by a press that is willing to defy their government in order to get it. Ironically, the only protection the press can have, if it is to function as the fourth estate, is the politically potent power to persuade large numbers of fellow citizens and fellow journalists to stand against legal authority on the side of truth.

  • Jason Brown

    Because with the freedoms come responsibilities, by which journalists may claim special protections, such as protecting the confidentiality of sources.

    This is not about creating a “special class of people” so much as creating a special class of protected actions, e.g. reporting on leaked documents from a whistleblower who does not want to be named.

    Which is why discussion of moving towards the act and away from the actor is especially interesting here.

  • rogerwilson

    Why define journalism or journalistic acts? Why try to create a special class of people with special freedoms? Are not freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedoms of self expression available to all?

  • Jason Brown

    Poynter rightly asks the question that needs answering – do we define journalists by the question “who?” – or, as suggested by FreePress – “what?”.

    If the former, then the arguments go on for ever. The latter act-based definition is far more suited to the times.

    Thus, if someone writes something that adheres to the precepts of journalism, including ethics, fairness and balance (but not false balance), then they have committed an act of journalism, and are therefore, a journalist.

    Fall outside ethical boundaries, and what they are writing is not journalism, and cannot properly be considered even as news.

    This may also have the advantage of returning to its roots, that of the journal, an account of the time, or times.