Journalism: Class, Craft, or Faith?

Journalism is a tool, a craft, and an art. It can be put to many uses, to serve many purposes. Its defining characteristic, as far as I can tell, is: the practice of honestly, transparently sharing relevant, current information and context that has been researched, filtered, and vetted. Beyond that, the field is wide open.

I know a lot of people don’t agree with that view – especially many professional journalists and editors who work for traditional news organizations.

Several conversations and online exchanges I’ve had recently indicate, to me, that some people treat journalism as a kind of religion. “Objectivity” is their “god,” and they adhere to that concept with absolute faith. Maybe because I was raised Catholic (it didn’t take, obviously), I have a hard time relating to faith…

Despite that weighty beginning, I’m not going to get too deep here. Basically, I just want to clarify some of the many types of journalism that exist, and to express my view that all of these are valid, useful, and appropriate – as long as they are practiced with care.

I’m doing this because of the ongoing debates concerning citizen journalism, bloggers vs. journalists, who’s “really” a journalist, and the evolving role of news organizations. There is a large, established contingent in these debates which takes the view that traditional journalism (as practiced by major newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters) is the paragon of the field – other forms are considered valid and worthy only if they strive to emulate traditional mainstream journalism. Usually that view isn’t flatly articulated; it’s an implicit assumption.

To me, that’s kind of like saying women are welcome in the workplace only as long as they emulate men and don’t try to change the way business gets done.

Anyway, here are some points I’d like to throw out for your consideration:

  1. Anyone can be a journalist. There is no special journalistic class, despite appearances and claims. Journalists are not licensed or regulated (in the US, at least). They are simply people engaged in gathering and disseminating public information, as well as information gathered through their own initiative. While news organizations have developed an impressive infrastructure and skill set to accomplish these tasks, they hold no monopoly on journalism.
  2. Objectivity is a goal, but not necessarily the only or best one. Most journalists strive to be objective in their reporting – or at least to appear objective. However, we live in an entirely subjective world. Everything from politics to physics is open to interpretation. Every person on this planet has a subjective point of view, colored by personal temperament and a unique history and context. Every reporter is somehow involved in each story she covers, simply by engaging in reporting. In “objective journalism,” reporters and editors make choices about which questions to ask and which information to present, based on a complex set of assumptions, biases, and traditions.
  3. The journalism spectrum is broad and diverse. I think that the practice of journalism can be an effective communication tool for corporate communications, advocates or activists, citizens, educators and academics, scientists, professionals, and other communities. I don’t think that having one of these identities should exclude anyone from being a journalist, or from being perceived as a “real” journalist. Their resources, skill sets, interests and goals may vary – but that’s true for traditional news organizations, too.
  4. Transparency builds trust. In my opinion, transparency is an indispensible characteristic for any journalist or journalism project. When you’re not trying to hide or skew anything, and when you’re willing to admit your shortcomings and correct errors, you establish credibility. That’s right – credibility doesn’t happen because you own a giant printing plant or fancy broadcast studio. It doesn’t happen because you got a Masters in Journalism at Columbia University. It doesn’t happen because you get accepted as an SPJ member. Consistent transparency establishes credibility. People want to know what they’re really getting from you.
  5. Skills can be learned. Many journalists have developed specific skills useful for gathering, assessing, and presenting information: interviewing, gathering and validating documents, corroboration, tracking down primary sources, evaluating statistics, logic and critical thinking, following a “beat,” fact-checking, and more. Anyone can learn and do these things. They’re just skills. However, anyone who aspires to commit journalism should learn these skills.
  6. Opinion and fact are not easily separated. This gets back to the objectivity issue. For instance, a news story that contains only “facts” does represent opinion in the form of editorial judgement. Someone had to choose which angle to follow (how the story is structured), which sources to consult, and which facts to include.
  7. Everyone benefits from diversity. OK, if I have any faith, this is it. In general, it seems to me that most aspects of the world benefit from the presence of diverse types and approaches. This works in society, in ecosystems, in economies, in medicine, in education, and in information. (Journalism is part of the information stream.) Diversity is inherently strong and flexible. People who accept that they exist in a diverse context tend to be more adaptable because they have broader experience, which means they have more options to survive, thrive, and create. I think if we broaden our view of what’s journalism, then journalism itself can become even more vital and useful to more people.

OK. Lots of big stuff there. Think it over, and please share your views.

5 thoughts on Journalism: Class, Craft, or Faith?

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  1. …other forms are considered valid and worthy only if they strive to emulate traditional mainstream journalism. Usually that view isn’t flatly articulated; it’s an implicit assumption.

    To me, that’s kind of like saying women are welcome in the workplace only as long as they emulate men and don’t try to change the way business gets done.

    Great point.

    And I couldn’t agree more with your comment about the “implicit assumption” that new media needs to imitate traditional media as a prerequisite for validity.

    I would even argue that this assumption/belief infects the “what is journalism” discussion to a point that renders it useless. There are so many panel discussions contemplating “What is real journalism?” or “Are blogs part of the media?” or what have you, but they never reach any real conclusions beyond the initial assumption of imitation equals validity.

  2. Though I agree with the statement that anyone can be a journalist and acknowledge the fact that no one regulates or licenses journalists, I would add that attending a good school that teaches journalism makes it easier to have the background knowledge helpful for ably practicing it. I think that need is sometimes underestimated, and that’s perhaps
    the fault of some journalists writing for periodicals today. Yet I’ve often encountered the attitude that anyone can write well about anything, and I think the job’s a bit more complex than that. I’m not really a practicing journalist, as what I do can essentially be described as PR for the Army, but I did earn a degree in journalism from Arizona State University, and it entailed quite a bit of study in subjects as diverse as history, mass communications theory, journalism law, creative writing, English literature, sociology, etc., etc. My undergraduate studies focused on liberal arts and included U.S. history, journalism history in the United States, civics reporting, trial reporting and so forth. Science courses such as introductory physics and geology were also a required part of the journalism curriculum at my school. I think it’s never a waste of time to study science for a non-scientific profession because, if nothing else, that kind of information sometimes makes it easier to discern bull**** when you come across it. Does a person need to attend a university to become a good journalist? Of course not. But doing that should help journalists understand more about a broad range of subjects – some of which they may end up writing about.

  3. Oh, please. Jouralists are not licensed, but neither are carpenters or plumbers. Just because I fix my own toilet or build a deck in my house does not make me a plumber or a carpenter. Journalists are those of us who make a living by practicing journalism, much like the Roto-Rooter guy is a plumber because that’s how he feeds himself and his family. Bloggers and others who use words to express their opinions have a constitutional right to do so, but please don’t call them journalists.

  4. David, I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that all bloggers are journalists. I’m saying that bloggers can practice journalism as well as (sometimes much better than) mainstream news organizations. Journalists whose idea of credibility rests in who you’re employed by should think again, IMHO. Cries of “don’t make us stand next to those icky bloggers, we’re real journalists!” are probably going to sound pretty bigoted and shortsighted before long, I think.

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  5. Amy, I agree with you on that point. In my book Matt Drudge is a journalist because he makes his living by disseminating information and opinion through his blog. But are we to consider to be journalists the corporate types who have started blogging to reach clients, or politicians who blog to reach supporters? I don’t think so. I don’t look down on bloggers just as I don’t look down on journalists who publish their own newsletters, whether digital or paper. The point I’m trying to make is that although everyone can be a blogger, not every blogger is or can be a journalist. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in journalism or not. If you make your living at it, you’re a journalist. If not, you’re something else.