Is anybody a journalist?

Is anybody a journalist?

: In a word: yes. Anybody can witness and report and now publish news.

LawDork responds to this question on last nights’ West Wing (which, unfortunately, I couldn’t see). See this post on the show and then this post that uses my little FCC FOIA expose to prove the point. See also this quote on the topic from Glenn Reynolds yesterday.

And see today’s NY Times on Kevin Sites in Iraq — keeping silent on the video he shot of a soldier shooting an Iraqi — that ends with this:

His Web site describes Mr. Sites as a “pioneering, multimedia journalist” who has worked in Afghanistan, Latin America and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East….

Mr. Sites has worked for several networks and has a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, according to the site.

Thus The Times blesses his credentials. But he’d be a journalist without them. He’s the guy who shot the video that is news.

  • “Is anybody a journalist?
    : In a word: yes. Anybody can witness and report and now publish news.”
    Jeff–this proposition may be true as a provocative debating point but it is not so illuminating.
    Marian Godfrey of the Pew Charitable Trusts has an instructive way of considering who qualifies for professional standing in many fields of civil society, journalism being just one. Her argument goes like this:
    Asking who is a journalist is like asking who is an artist or an athlete or a politician. Anybody can engage in some degree of creative expression or sports activity or political activism, but assigning such a label to anybody, irrespective of their competence, evacuates it of meaning.
    Think instead of each activity as a curve, at one end being extreme amateurism and participation (singing in a choir, playing in a bowling league, volunteering for the PTA); at the other extreme celebrity professionalism and spectatorship (Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Barack Obama). Both extremes have viable economic models and sturdy institutions underpinning them.
    Those of us interested in the health of civil society need not worry about these extremes. Let us consider the middle of the curve instead. The place where amateurs begin to acquire some expertise; where professionals have problems getting regular work and proper pay. The middle of the curve is where the wannabe classical soprano waits tables, where the college basketball star gets cut at NBA rookie camp, where the candidate for city council has to decide whether to compromise principles to attract campaign funds.
    What are the structures which allow expert amateurs and non-celebrity professionals to thrive, to continue doing valuable work while not being on the track to celebrity stardom? These are the structures which can improve our daily lives as conributing members of society (neither amateurs nor consumers), where we do not have to make a trade-off between participating and spectating but can do both simultaneously. This problem of the middle of the curve exists in the arts, sports and politics–and also in journalism.
    We know how to “witness and report and now publish news” in a Dear Diary format. And we know how Katie Couric does it, too. But what are the institutions where the expert amateur and the non-celebrity worker can produce journalism together, where the finished product will be reflect better-than-rudimentary professional standards, investment of resources, ethical norms and institutional memory?
    Your answer that “anybody can do it” suggests that these standards are not difficult to acquire (I insist they are) and not worth upholding and cultivating.

  • I don’t quite see it that way. There is one thing that the amateur athlete, soprano, etc. all have in common. They share a practice that is to some extent scripted, and teachable. Both have to learn the script and practice to begin better at their profession.
    There is no script or shared practice in journalism. Journalistic institutions offer VERY loose control over the actions and products of journalists. That has become glaringly apparent in recent months (Dan Rather, Jayson Blair, etc.) The fact that Bollinger, president of Columbia University, considered closing the journalism school because it was irrelevant shows that journalism is somehow unconvincing as a profession.
    How can you tell a professional journalist (I’m not saying there is a professional journalist, but let’s pretend there is) from a non-professional journalist? What practices, norms, activities mark the work of a professional journalist? Not those resources outside the journalist. Behaving like a professional journalist should not be dependent on a fancy phone, a nice office, or on a paycheck. The work and the product defines a profession.
    So how would I know a professional journalist from a non-professional journalist?

  • Jeff, the best part of the end of the Sites piece in the Times is the final attribution.
    “Mr. Sites has worked for several networks and has a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, according to the site.”
    No one on copy desk could check to see if he finished his master’s?

  • Franky

    Can anyone be a journalist? No. It requires a certain temparament. Does someone with a video camera make a journalist? No. What they record maybe used in a report, but unless that filmed is so striking (9/11, shooting of Iraqi, Abu Graid, etc.) then some context will need to be presented.
    Just because the blurring of news and opinion is growing in some sectors, that’s no need to give up on the profession. The vast majority of journalists continue to slog away presenting the news as they find it, avoiding putting their own opinion on the facts. And that’s the problems of bloggers moving in to journalism. They’ve created sites where they can spout off their opinions, defend their side, but they’ve shown little inclination to investigate stories, relying mainly on opinionating on that already presented. Op-ed pages are perfect for bloggers, but the news section is not for the majority of them.

  • That’s the beauty of the Internet and the emerging technologies that make it possible for anybody anywhere with a cell phone/camera to report from the scene. Odds are that something big is going to happen somewhere within the next year or two and somebody will be there with such a cell phone/camera and provide dramatic coverage before anybody else gets there. That will put the possibilities front-of-mind for millions of people who don’t yet realize what they could be doing.

  • Old Grouch

    So how would I know a professional journalist from a non-professional journalist?

    Same way you tell a professional artist from a non-professional. He gets paid for his product and makes a living at it.

    May sound facetious, but think about it: Journalism is an occupation with zero barriers to entry (other than finding someone willing to hire you), no prerequisite credentials, and few legislated standards. Trying to add qualifications only causes trouble. “Someone employed by a recognized media organization”? (Recognized by who? What about I.F. Stone?) “Someone who reports on current events”? (Like Michael Moore?) “Someone who carries a press card”?

    Now if, on the other hand, you wanted to argue the difference between reporter and pundit