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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.