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.”
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.