Thursday, October 10, 2013

Real journalists, please stand up

There’s a curious debate going on in various places about who can claim to be called a journalist.

Journalism isn’t like medicine or accounting – there are no tests to pass or formal credentials to earn. But that doesn’t mean there’s any mystery to who is a journalist and who isn’t.

It doesn’t necessarily have to do with where the person works, or whether she’s a blogger or he’s a network anchor. It comes down to four simple principles:

  1. Seek truth and report it.
  2. Minimize harm.
  3. Act independently.
  4. Be accountable.
These basic principles of journalism can be found on the Society of Professional Journalist’s web site. An expanded version can be found on the Post Register’s web site.

It’s pretty straightforward – people who have been properly trained and are committed to these four principles can be called journalists. Others cannot. It’s not really all that complicated.

This has become a pertinent issue lately because the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate is trying to create its own definition as it contemplates a federal shield law that would protect journalists who don’t want to be forced to divulge anonymous sources (which is another topic for another day).

The First Amendment makes it unconstitutional to formally enforce these or any other journalistic guidelines, but there should be no prohibition against using them to help determine whether someone claiming to be a journalist deserves the protection of a shield law. Beyond that, in the more generic debate over what journalism is, these principles are the starting point.

Because journalism can now be practiced using an increasing multitude of platforms, from old-fashioned print and broadcast to smart phones and blogs, some people seem to be having a hard time distinguishing journalism from blathering. As I’ve written in this space before, there’s no need for such confusion.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to identify who isn’t a journalist.

For example, if:

  • You collect content from around the Internet and post it on your site, you’re not necessarily a journalist.
  • You simply write your opinion on an issue without fact-checking, you’re not a journalist.
  • You point your smart phone at a traffic accident and get video, you’re not a journalist.
To be as helpful as possible, here’s a partial list of content sources not run under basic journalistic standards: Reddit, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Drudge Report, WorldNetDaily, The Daily Show, MSNBC, Fox News, The Colbert Report … oh, I could go on and on. These, and other sources like them, may be entertaining or even informative. They may even experience the occasional journalistic spasm.

But they don’t reliably or consistently do journalism, so reader and viewer beware.

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