Posted on September 27, 2009
Defining journalism now
During my 11 years as a copy editor, I spent a lot of time with my nose in a dictionary. I doubt that I ever looked up the words journalism or journalist. Today, prompted by a question on Twitter, I did.
The online entry for journalism is dated 1828 (that does not mean it’s never been updated, but …):
- (a) the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media
(b) the public press
(c) an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
- (a) writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine
(b) writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation
(c) writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest
I found all of that unsatisfactory. Leaving aside for a moment the lack of acknowledgment of online media — what about television and radio? For heaven’s sake, even in the 1970s, we admitted that broadcast journalism was (at least some of the time) real journalism.
Writing! Seriously, I don’t think I’ve considered journalism to be limited to writing since I was an undergrad print journalism major 30 years ago.
I replied to my Twitter friend David Lee this way when he asked me for my definition of journalist:
- Tough question! Journalist = person who gathers, then reports, information w/o self-interest.
- Of course, that definition of “journalist” could also describe a researcher.
I know there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about who is a journalist and who is not. In some countries, you’re a journalist only if the national government has issued you a press card — a card that government can also revoke at will. That’s a situation I hope never to see in my own country.
We’d be better off if we defined a journalist as a person who does journalism — but we will need a better definition of journalism than Merriam-Webster’s current one.