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 …):

  1. (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
  2. (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.

22 Comments on “Defining journalism now

  1. Journalism is one of many professions were members of the profession are dedicated to seeking the truth.

  2. “Journalist = person who gathers, then reports, information w/o self-interest.”

    Is this a definition of American journalists, or all journalists?

    What about those news gatherers who believe in the inherent biasness of all coverage, a common model in Europe.

    Are there developed nations whose entire media systems lack appreciable numbers of journalists? If so, what do we call them?

  3. I think J. Hunter’s definition is pretty close to accurate, “a person who gathers then reports information without self-interest.”

    Journalism is, in part, a cultural thing in terms of how they are viewed so I think you could look at it two ways. There is a broader, less defined international definition, which can then be refined and specified on a cultural/national level.

  4. Maybe we can use a parallel to discuss the question.

    Politician as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

    1 : a person experienced in the art or science of government; especially : one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government
    2 a : a person engaged in party politics as a profession b : a person primarily interested in political office for selfish or other narrow usually short-sighted reasons

    By this definition we can include Sarkozy, Mwai Kibaki, Kim Jung Il and Obama all in the same category and the term is useful.

    It would be just as useful to have distinct terms to discuss media professionals world wide.

    Of course, inclusiveness in media profession has tangible drawbacks, stemming from the publics confusion about different grades of journalism.

    I certainly do not advocate situating Hanna Giles next to Anne Hull.

  5. Mindy:
    This is just the question my grad students in Journalism as Literature keep asking every week as we poke and probe some excellent examples of what others have defined as journalism.

    I am tending toward something along the lines of the definition of a journalist as a curator (Someone who is in charge of collecting, conserving, and interpreting objects for exhibit at a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibition) which becomes (Someone who is in charge of collecting, conserving, and interpreting texts – broadly defined – for publication in an assortment of venues.)Journalism would be the act of doing so.

    Of course, there is that sticky word interpretation, which bumps into the notion of journalism as being objective. So if interpretation is going on, is it journalism? Alas.

  6. Journalism is many things and nothing. I believe there are many tasks with which a journalist is charged that don’t all have to be performed in every piece of journalism. I think the what is not so important as the why. A journalist will (at times) be partial and advocate for certain interests. A journalist will be adversarial and there are also occasions when a journalist will be curious.

    The constant is that the journalist must report, they must inform. The medium is inconsequential, so long as it allows communication to occur.

  7. @Ron Rodgers: I wrote about the journalist as curator here in December. Curation is part of journalism, but it’s not the whole enchilada, in my opinion. Digging up stuff that’s been buried, for example, is not curation. Putting two things together and coming up with something new is more than curation.

    Dwight Silverman at the Houston Chronicle (@dsilverman) recommended Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as examples of journalism that we might have to debate at length.

    I don’t worry as much about “interpretation” as I do about an attempt to “sell” something (quotes used because selling is not always about money or products). As for objectivity — you and I both know that was always a myth.

  8. Well, we can hope, but we also have the Gainesville Sun and TV20 as shining examples of media channels where the reporters aren’t likely to be awake, much less curious. Sigh…

  9. Mindy
    I am being fairly expansive in my definition of collecting.

  10. “Journalist in Cambodia = a person who gather information from one side, then reports the information with self-interest. If you don’t believe this definition, you might want to learn more about journalism in Cambodia.

  11. Ok, gathering and reporting information in any form and way… but why without self interest? Do you mind with no erode common good?

  12. The persistence of this question over time is interesting. But it’s still relevant, as recent news about changes in a possible shield law come up again.

    From Howard Weaver in 2007:

    His comparison to a scientist is intriguing, because it implies an open mind in testing hypotheses. So even if a journalist espouses an opinion, the scientific method would require the journalist to gather data as objectively as possible (and perhaps be peer reviewed).

    And a quote from a class paper from me late that same year, on truth:
    “Some of the most restless and interesting journalists have had trouble making any claim of truth at all.”
    Jack Fuller, former Chicago Tribune president and publisher, in “News Values, Ideas for an Information Age.”

    So that would cover Hunter S. Thompson and current folk who say everyone is biased and no journalism can be objective.

    Then there’s the “first draft of history” definition for journalism, quoted in the paper and attributed most widely to Phillip Graham, former editor of The Washington Post.

    The historical problem with that:
    Writing down or verbally repeating information has always had sponsors, and at various times in history, only the wealthy could hire someone to repeat or write down their stories, thus making the first draft and history reflect only the viewpoints of the wealthy parts of society. History belongs to those who write it down. Perhaps journalism does too.

    And that brings me back to the question that weighs most heavily for me: How SHOULD society fund journalism, or history. How can the fullness of society be written down (or photographed, or verbally shared) when in times of scarce resources, only the wealthy can pay for their stories to be covered?

  13. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the question of the definition of journalism; my brain seems to be wired for it. I would add two things:

    1. You tweeted: “Of course, that definition of “journalist” could also describe a researcher.” Yes. At the most basic level I think journalists and researchers (ie academics/scientists) are engaged in the same activities, or perhaps I should say they share a common root.

    2. What activities? Here’s my definition: Journalists tell stories to engage the public in conversation. The hope of Journalism is that through the conversation, problems or issues facing the public should be brought to light, explanations offered, and solutions found.

    The explanations offered can be built on lots of different ways of looking at the world, so the explanations can be quite different and sometimes incompatible. Like separating science from pseudoscience, the problem is in demarcation.

  14. @Sokha – I understand what you’re saying. But the definition should not label everyone as dishonest and self-serving, yes?

    @Miguel Carvajal – By “without self-interest,” I meant that what the journalist follows and reports should not bring personal profit to him or her. I know that this is idealistic, and in many countries, that is the opposite of the way journalism really works.

    Of course, having good government is in everyone’s interest. The common good is (in theory) good for all (c.f. Schumpeter).

    And as Jacqui Banaszynski noted, yes, definitely, journalism ought to be done in the public’s interest.

  15. Hi, Mindy.

    This is a very interesting exercise. When I launched the new media program at the Medill School of Journalism in 2000, I did something similar. My goal was to define “new media journalism,” and I broke the term apart into two pieces. The “new media” part was actually relatively simple; but “journalism” was a real problem. Every source I looked at defined journalism either based on the type of publication it appeared in (e.g. newspapers) or based on the activities of journalists.

    For what it’s worth, I just came across this definition from sociologist/historian Michael Schudson:

    “Journalism is the business or practice of producing and disseminating information about contemporary affairs of general public interest and importance.”

    It’s not a bad start, methinks, though one might now add “curating” to “producing and disseminating” … and might drop “general” so it encompasses niche as well as broad audiences.

  16. I really enjoyed this post. It seems this question has been coming up a lot. And I don’t think it is a question that can be easily answered.
    I will be graduating this January and I feel I am a Journalist because I am informing an audience with information. But with accordance to an amendended law, here in the US, I would be excluded because I am an amateur journalist, and all the other bloggers and reporters, who a substantial amount of their day is not devoted to reporting are not covered as being a reproter under the Shield Law.
    I think there are many people out there who are in the same situation as me and are not considered jourlanlists and I do not think there will aver be a clear cut answer for this question.

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