Who are you calling a journalist?

Many people have commented on the actions of Mayhill Fowler, who went to a fund-raising dinner for Barack Obama and later wrote about remarks Obama made there. (Today Jeff Jarvis commented on Michael Tomasky commenting about Jay Rosen commenting on the matter.) Much of the fuss revolves around questions about who is a journalist, when is someone a journalist and when is she not, and whether national political figures should have an expectation of privacy at a small private dinner (snort).

I’d like to mention that in Zimbabwe, one week ago, a woman named Margaret Ann Kriel was reportedly arrested in Bulawayo (the second largest city in the country) “on allegations of practicing journalism without accreditation” (source: AllAfrica.com, April 15).

I would like us all to think about Kriel’s case whenever we are inclined to rail on about bloggers doing — or not doing — journalism.

Kriel was not formally charged, according to the report, but she had to pay bail (Z$100 million, or about US$3,300) and “surrender her travel documents.” To practice journalism without accreditation in Zimbabwe violates a national law known as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), amended in 2007.

The Zimbabwe court heard evidence that between Feb. 14 and April 10, Kriel and two other people “carried out interviews at various places in the city and surrounding areas” with two politicians (David Coltart of MDC-Mutambara and Thokozani Khupe of MDC-Tsvangirai) and with “members of the public.”

There’s a dangerous activity — one I would call journalism.

“The state will seek to prove that they carried out these activities pretending to be accredited journalists when they were not” (same source).

This is where journalist accreditation leads.

Naming who is a journalist — and who is not — is a dangerous, dangerous course to follow — and one I hope will never be pursued in my own country.

13 Comments on “Who are you calling a journalist?

  1. It’s not dangerous at all. For example, page designers are not journalists, but they’ve been allowed to pretend they are, and the consequences have been dire.

  2. Geez, Wenalway, don’t you ever get tired of posting the same whine time after time? Some designers are jerks, and some designers are serious journalists. Get over it already.

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  6. What scares me is how we are headed that direction with all these privacy laws, and the public is so uneducated about the importance and the true meaning of the First Amendment, some lawmaker is someday going to get away with introducing a bill requiring the licensing of journalists. We should all be journalists, just as we should all be politicians and take part in the political process and we should all be lobbyists and make sure our elected leaders know what we think.

  7. I’ll get tired of it as soon as newspapers wise up and move in a different direction. And as that day is likely a long way off, the show must go on!

  8. @Jeff Jarvis: Oh, man, you’re right. But you know, that just sounds so wrong …

  9. It is tacky to not identify yourself up front as a writer if you are going to write about a conversation or event. It smacks of sneakiness and trickery not to let people know they might be quoted. Calling yourself a journalist and identifying where you publish might help — it also gives people a way of reading what you write. Credibility, to me, has to include fairness to the people you are writing about, as well as getting facts straight. Unfortunately, some people feel that journalists have access to information that regular people do not have. Some journalists feed into that for their own reasons.
    The real issue for me is why, with the dramatic increase in writers, be they called journalists or hacks, who have thousands of places to publish, why have we not seen the expected benefits from “sunshine” that causes increased honesty in governments and businesses?
    I need to develop this some more, but I think traditional media have a great deal of reserve credibility from their coverage of sporting and cultural events at the local levels.
    Alternative Media
    St. Augustine, Florida

  10. Just as a thought exercise — imagine you went to a political dinner. You did not intend to take notes or write anything about it. But during the dinner or the speeches, something quite newsworthy occurs. Say, maybe, a member of Congress says in his speech that he wishes we still had Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South, for example. Wouldn’t you write about it? I would.

  11. Yes, for that very reason you need to tell people up front that you might write about what happens that night. You can’t turn off being a writer. If there are attorneys present, and I cover court cases so they are often there, I tell them that if I don’t like what they say, I’ll make up something more interesting.

    Who are you kidding, going to an exciting political dinner and not hoping that there will be something innovative and specific and practical said!?

    For me, living in a town that has a police department building named after a klan member who was not only proud to be a member of the klan, but arrested Martin Luther King, we don’t have shortages of good quotes that would shock outsiders.

    What we do have is a shortage of working journalists who know how to collect and interpret statistics. Damn, it would suffice if journalists just knew how to interpret statistics and know when they are nonsense or not.

    Dwight Hines
    St. Augustine
    Concerned about Citizen Media Law Project (Berkman) because they are only looking at legal threats to the media.

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