The one in which I turn blue trying to explain why I feel bloggers are not automatically journalists.

December 16, 2008

If it were up to me, I would introduce legislation that would require all journalists to be licensed. And a requirement of that licensing process would include at least two years of collegiate study and at least one year of full-time work as a reporter. Further, I would ask that the law require all prospective journalists to provide letters of reference from no fewer than three editors who would vouch for said reporter’s judgment and skill.

That’s not going to happen. Not in an era that sees businesses flocking to the most widely viewed media with story pitches. Not in a time when news organizations (ironically) are the first to lose sight of how important story telling and rich, informative articles are to an informed public. And certainly not in a time when some of the smartest people I know can’t make a distinction between the practice of journalism and the classification of journalist.

Maybe the solution is a simple realignment of naming conventions. We can change ‘journalist’ into ‘media delivery person’ and leave the process of journalism alone. Because in my understanding – developed from 20+ years in the news industry and advanced study in communications and journalism – the process of journalism requires that you have an editor assigning, critiquing and hopefully refining your reporting so that it delivers the most unbiased and informative information to a publication’s readership.

The media delivery people of today – journalists, bloggers, videographers, pundits and even PR flacks – are increasingly creating content for consumers without that layer of refinement. I’ve included journalists here too because newsrooms are being decimated by budget cuts and a lot more content is flying onto newsprint and into the ether without editors touching a red pen to it.

You might ask if we need editors. Can’t people decide what content is good or bad by themselves? Wouldn’t things be much better if there was a shakeout and more competition in the news industry? Maybe both are true.

Perhaps we’d be better off without the reporters who broke the story about the major auto manufacturers flying private jets to Washington. Oh, you read that on a blog. Yeah, you read it there because it was reported first by the D.C. press.

First to the public doesn’t indicate who did the hard work behind the scenes.

Maybe we’d be better off without knowing that Illinois government is for sale. Oh, that was a Federal investigation? Yes it was, but the story was shared by trained journalists who had the respect and the skill to follow that story down and then share it with the world.

Well, if the papers weren’t around, there would be bloggers and new media folks to fill the void. Maybe so. But the reality is that on election night, the majority of the country got its news from four outlets and then re-reported the news of the election. When the major outlets are dead, is Billy the blogger going to have the resources and the reach to inform the entire country about election results?

A friend recently shared with me an article written by Boston University journalism professor Chris Daly. This article – Are Bloggers Journalists? – made me consider my stance and refine my argument re: blogging isn’t journalism.

After taking us from 1760 to present-day America, Daly’s penultamate point is:

Nowadays, when we ask whether someone is a journalist, we may need to refine the question. We should ask: Is this the kind of journalist who presents analysis, commentary, or political rants? Or, is this the kind of journalist who offers the fruits of reporting? Or some of both? The issue is not the job title but the activity.

I agree, sort of. On more than one occasion I’ve been confused by my social-media brethren (including Steve Garfield, Christopher Penn and even Ari Herzog) as to what they feel constitutes journalism. My feeling was that journalism came from a reporter who submitted work to an editor at a newsroom – physical or virtual – and from that came content for a reading/viewing/consuming public.

The stance I received from these, and other people, was that content creators of all kinds should get the same treatment, benefits and access as ‘traditional’ media. And in fact, that in most cases there shouldn’t be a line drawn between the two. That’s the crux of my frustration.

How can anyone, and these people are very smart, assign the title of journalist to someone with access to a piece of technology?

If I hand my iPhone to my nephew and he figures out how to send video to iReport, is he a journalist?

If my cat wanders across my keyboard and creates a blog entry by pure happenstance, is she a journalist?

The trap people sometimes fall into is being too inclusionary and accepting of everyone. Like the paintings made with excrement a few decades back, there are certainly differing opinions as to what constitutes art. The same can be said of what makes an attractive house or a pleasant sound.

The interpretation is less acceptable when evaluating plumbing, driving, reporting and a host of other practices. If you don’t seal the gas main, you’ve done a bad job of plumbing. If you break traffic laws, you’ve done a bad job of driving. If you don’t present a balanced report of events from which an audience can make an informed opinion, you’ve done a poor job of reporting.

Sure, I’m open to the edges of journalism including opinion pieces, commentary, features and even some longer creative non-fiction approaches. But the vetting of an editor, the training of a J-School (or similar field experience) and an understanding of libel, slander and ethics should all be part of a journalist’s background.

Until that occurs, bloggers don’t get my nod as journalists.

I welcome your comments.

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