More than deputies: A definition of journalism for the 21st Century

Let’s confirm who professional journalists are: People (trained or not), paid to produce content under the mastheads of traditional news outlets.

Let’s confirm what they’re supposed to do: This is a tricky one. No matter how many times I have asked, and how many people, across Australia, the USA and the UK, nobody can give me a core definition of journalism. Maybe it’s a secret. A magician’s code. Part of the smoke and mirrors used to convince everyone they’re worth being paid for over anyone without a mogul. Professional journalists promote their work as a noble art, one that demands a rigor most can not attain. With prompting, a professional journalist will usually agree you need training, you need balance, fairness, fact collection and analysis.
In a conversation I had on Twitter with people in Australia following the Twitter’s Impact on Media and Journalism mini-conference (actually a 2-hour seminar of sorts), Brad Howarth, a professional journalist who was attending says journalism will not be “harmed or replaced by Twitter.” Another Australian, Renai Lemay, followed his presentation at the same conference with a post for ZDNet where he likens his role as a professional journalist to a knight, protecting the honour of a “great lady of noble birth” and describes Twitter as a “playground for pleasure of journalists.” Somewhere to reconnect with the audience. While Renai seeks to support Twitter’s role, he demonstrates a very Lipmann-esque view – it’s still them and us, and being able to play amongst the great unwashed is a novel way of “cutting the fat out of journalism.”

Bringing it to the US, last night, on Lou Dobbs’ show on CNN, the Face Off segment featured a rather strange topical area of ‘Social Networks & Journalism: Is traditional media obsolete?’, Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University held the same line as Renai. He described citizen journalists as “acting like deputies … it’s just like we used to use eyewitnesses.” In what was supposedly a debate (which Dobbs pointedly remarked at the start he hoped would be won by Professor Thompson), Micah Sifryn, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum began well by saying “anyone can commit and act of journalism.” However he followed that up by agreeing with Lou Dobbs that it “takes more than just holding up your mobile phone and filming stuff and then putting it online to be a journalist.”

Oh really?

My issue is that all of this is either a. focused on the media used for journalism rather than what journalism actually is, or  b. garbled propaganda nonsense.

Let me be clear. For those who don’t know me, I was a traditional, paid journalist for 15 years. I then moved to Public Relations, and then into teaching journalism, marketing, PR, event management and advertising at college. Happily, I’m back in traditional professional journalism myself, as the Boulder Startup Examiner for Examiner.com. (I make enough for a cup of coffee a week). I’m even currently undertaking graduate research in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU in Boulder (on social media communities), and I TA on the Intro to Journalism and Intro to Advertising classes. I’m a co-founder of a startup which will enable people to create more content and make better connections online. I’m pretty well engaged on all fronts.

And my question is thus: If traditional, professional journalists (those I’ve identified above) want to say what they do is different to what is able to be done by anyone else, I believe they have to say what makes it so, in order to be understood. So let me help you professionals out. The book, Elements of Journalism, authored by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, provides 10 elements of journalism. They are:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
3. Its essence is discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
10. The rights and responsibilities of citizens to be media literate.

But I’m questioning these traditional elements. While the 10th Element only appeared in this text in 2007 as a direct response to the power of Web 1.0, I believe it’s time to entirely redefine the concept of journalism. To strip it back and challenge the notion of what it is – a notion that has root in the medium, not the craft. All of the above elements of journalism reflect a somewhat Lipmann-esque attitude. But at last in the 21st Century, John Dewey really gets a turn. At journalism’s very core is one thing – communication. So I’ve developed a new definition of what journalism is:


Journalism is communication through any means that enables two things – a. the transmission of factual information about all factors that make up society, and b. validation, authentication and discussion of opinions, beliefs and commentary.

In the past, given the limited and expensive range of tools open to people, journalists were defined as a separate group of people. Training in the media they worked in, and how best to ‘do’ journalism to communicate messages were the focus. But those constraints have left us. The best journalism does not rely on the old elements – nor the old media. It doesn’t rely on training, or a paypacket.

Will journalism still exist when the moguls move onto more profitable ventures? Yes. Is it noble and necessary for democracy? Yes. Does it need defending? No (from what?). Is it the realm of the few? No, not any more. It’s not Twitter that is changing it. It’s Web 2.0. All social media. It’s going to be even greater when even more people are creating the content. That’s democracy.

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7 responses to “More than deputies: A definition of journalism for the 21st Century

  1. humanbeingblog

    well said. we’ve been having this same debate from the PR side of things in my circle … do we even need to exist? And will journalists even listen to us when we have a story that needs attention with all the other Web 2.0 racket going on? (I work for a major cancer center, not the yellow pages, so we actually do have stories to pitch that affect people’s lives significantly.)

    I think of the 10 elements, No 1 is No 1 for a reason, and that’s where most bloggers/Twitter, etc. will always fail to be journalists. Those who did not go to J-school and have professors (and then editors) drill into their head that the truth comes first will put gossip first. In our American culture, gossip rules, and I dare say that even the more stalwart journalists are standing precariously close to that line between truth-beyond-the-facts and what will get you ratings.

  2. Great to see you have kept the discussion going. More of these sort of discussions are needed to help us find our way more quickly to new models.

    I think your definition goes a long way towards redefining journalism in an age where the tools for reporting are far more broadly available within society. Journalism is an odd profession – you need no qualification or certificate, you really just need your own assertion that you are a journalist’ and the belief of the people listening to you. In the past you got this through the people who employed you. Now online tools enable easy self-publishing. Hence anyone can be a journalist, provided they display the characteristics you describe. Whether they are good at it or not is entirely another matter …

    Twitter is an interesting development within the media mix, and its role as a medium for journalism I suspect still has a long way to develop. As a tool for breaking news and promoting stories, it is becoming highly valuable. It is also giving a voice to both eyewitnesses and concerned individuals that would otherwise have never been heard. And it is setting the news agenda by allowing the identification of trends.

    All of these things I believe will be beneficial to journalism over the long term (as I feel they are already).

    • Thanks for your response Brad. My belief is that while traditional media entities will still exist, their power will never again be as solid if they continue to focus on manipulating content for an audience, rather than providing an infrastructure for a more democratic creation and distribution of content. The strength of media as a profitable business venture now lies in the infrastructure. Media companies need to move beyond employing journalists for older journalistic roles (purely creating content) if they want to remain profitable.

      People do not need to make money from journalism to be as good as professionals. And it’s become apparent that many of those paid to produce content aren’t producing content that warrants being paid. That’s why people don’t access the content they produce. They get it elsewhere.

      I do believe that we need a redefinition of what it means to be doing journalism, to be called a journalist. And to recognise,finally, a truth that was always the case – making money isn’t a key factor of journalism. In fact, it’s easily argued it impedes quality journalism.

  3. I’d definitely agree that you don’t need to be paid to be good. But in this world most people need to be paid for their time – or be sufficiently wealthy to obviate this. Most journalists I know work at least a 40 hour week – it would be hard to do this unpaid, and I’ve seen many examples of great amateurs (I mean that strictly from a monetary perspective) burn out after a year or two.

    Traditional media is under threat also from fragmentation of media spending. This is driven by both the proliferation of new media forms as well as bad business practices and bad journalism within traditional media companies.

    I would hate to see a future where the role of a paid journalist no longer exists – and not just from a point of self-interest. Traditional journalism provides a layer of abstraction between the main sources of funding (advertisers) and the creators of content (although the thickness of that layer is often called into question).

    The true amateur has no problem here, because they are not seeking keep advertisers happy, but then they potentially run into the issue of not being rewarded for their time.

    Maybe the future is one of vast pools of amateurs working together under an aggregator? I doubt it, but who knows for sure? In the meantime, it’s certainly giving people on all sides plenty to write about.

    • You’re beginning to ‘get me’ ;) and yes, we see many things in the same/similar way. However, I must say that I don’t believe the future of journalism includes being paid enough money to live on to create content. If that means people won’t do it fulltime, then that’s the way it will be. To believe that’s a loss to society, given the quality of the majority of mainstream paid journalists out there, is misguided.

      I’d rather people wrote stories they had passion for than to pay bills. So that’s our fundamental disagreement. You’d hate to see the traditional role of a paid journalist gone, whereas I celebrate the democratization, the openness and myriad voices that will ensue. And let me be specific – traditionally paid journalists are problematic for journalism not just because they are constantly pressured to dance to the beat of advertisers. It’s dancing to the beat (or perception of its rhythm) of the mogul or owner.

  4. I don’t think we’ll ever see eye to eye tho :-) I’d argue that it is important within journalism to be dispassionate, to be able to take a balanced approach (although I suspect from previous posts you’ll argue that journalism has lost its notions of balanced reporting). It does however help when people are reporting on things of which they are knowledgeable, but even this is not necessarily a prerequisite to being able to write a strong story.

    You express a very low opinion of the quality of journalism in today’s market overall. I think the profession has given you a lot of ground to feel this way, and it is a topic that should be constantly debated, but I would not go so far to say that the quality of paid journalism today is so poor that its demise would be no loss to society. We’ll never agree on that.

    • Great stuff Brad. You understand me, I understand you. And we agree to disagree, yet respect and understand each others’ positions. What a great place to be. Cheers! :)

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