The problem with defining ‘a journalist’

Cleland Thom writes in Press Gazette today about the list of requirements specified by an Oregon judge before a person could claim protection as a journalist in his court.

  1. Journalism education.
  2. Credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity.
  3. Proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest.
  4. Keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted.
  5. Mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources.
  6. Creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others.
  7. Contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

This seems a reasonable enough list of criteria – I’m interpreting the phrasing of the judge’s opinion as indicating that any single of these criteria would suit, rather than all 7 (as is the case in the Reynolds defence mentioned by Thom).

But I think there’s a broader problem (unrelated to the specific case in Oregon, which was about a protection from being sued for libel only afforded to journalists) with trying to certify individuals as journalists when more  journalism is done collaboratively. If, for example, one person researches the regulations relating to an issue, another FOIs key documents; a third speaks to a victim; a fourth speaks to an expert; a fifth to the person resposible; and a sixth writes it all up into a coherent narrative – which one is the journalist?

7 thoughts on “The problem with defining ‘a journalist’

  1. Andy Dickinson

    I agree. On the plus side it does underline how positive it can be for journalists to get alongside those who may not meet those criteria but are no less journalistic to tell great stories. maybe stuff like this shows how a more defined (and as a result more protected) journalism could help bring stories forward. Like a gun for hire 🙂

    1. Acer Lee

      Yes, I agree with Andy. Being a journalist you can get and write a column even if you do not meet all the listings and freedom of expressions are gonna make it.

  2. Ibrar Khan

    It doesn’t particularly bother me too much when people call themselves ‘journalists’. Although I know it bothers many others, they think there needs to be some sort of regulation or framework…especially our EU counterparts. I was at a conference once (in Brussels) and the idea of citizen journalism and ‘what is a journalist’ popped up, they were under the impression there needed to be some sort of structure/framework as in other industries, they were worried about standards (lack of) and ‘their’ industry suffering as a result.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      What frustrates me is the fuzziness of these demands. Do BBC journalists demand a framework to prevent Daily Star employees claiming that they are journalists? (trusted less than Twitter according to a recent report) Do reporters for gossip mags seek a right of reply in every report? So why are journalists suddenly worried about ‘standards’? If consumers can make a distinction between one newspaper and another, why do we not think they can do the same with websites?

      The argument around law is similar – the law doesn’t make a distinction between journalists and citizens, so we don’t need to make one for it (it’s notable that the Reynolds Defence looks at process, not someone’s business card). And as for ethics – those are not instilled with a job title (ethical codes haven’t stopped all the practices explored in the Leveson inquiry).

      Too many of these demands stink of egotism, a desire to stand apart from other people – and that’s what bothers me. If a journalist is seeking to be something other than a ‘citizen’, then I think that makes for bad journalism, an aspiration to power rather than to demanding answers from power to tough questions, a right every citizen should have.

  3. Pingback: What on earth is a journalist anyway? | Media News | A Precis of News and Reaction in the Media | Media Digest

  4. Pingback: Journalism and Journalists « tawnycomms239

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