Yes Virginia, there are journalists

Media geeks took to their keyboards this week to pontificate on a column posted over the weekend by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan under the headline “Who is a journalist?”  Begging your pardon, but I’m about to join them.

The impetus for Sullivan’s commentary was an article on WikiLeaks that ran in the Tuesday edition of the paper citing a source named Alexa O’Brien, who has been serving as a sort of “people’s stenographer” at the trial of Army private-turned-whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Here’s the Huffington Post’s take on how O’Brien spends her time:

“An IT professional-turned-independent journalist in her 30s, O’Brien has been a player in a number of major protests against the Obama administration. She’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit launched by journalist Chris Hedges against the Obama administration over a law mandating indefinite military detention for suspected terrorists. Starting in January 2011, she covered WikiLeaks’ release of the State Department cables.”

The Times reporters did their own assessment of O’Brien’s career and chose to refer to her as an “activist” in their article, dropping any reference to her role as a journalist. O’Brien was understandably peeved and wrote the paper to request a correction — which was approved by the Times‘ resident expert on such matters and published in the next day’s edition.

According to Sullivan, the series of events — as well as an earlier Times article that referred to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald as a “blogger” — calls into question the very definition of a journalist in an atmosphere in which anyone with an Internet connection now has the ability to call themselves one.

In answering her own question, Sullivan offers this simplistic, and to my mind severely wanting, definition:

“A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press — the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.”

In his response to Sullivan’s column, media pundit and J-school professor Jeff Jarvis took an even broader approach, with a column titled “There are no journalists” that proposes doing away with the term altogether. According to Jarvis, “anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism,” and the urge to elevate those who practice it to some specially recognized status only complicates things.

While there is nothing semantically wrong with either of those positions, I find myself wary of the notion that journalism a.) is inherently adversarial, and b.) if left to its own devices will morph into existence by the sheer will of our collective desire for truth and justice.  To be fair, Jarvis envisions a role for some form of expert to “add value” to the journalistic process, but he is uncomfortable with the “baggage” the term “journalist” carries with it.

What Jarvis sees as impedimenta, however, I recognize as containing a seed of value for the continuity of a craft so vital to our democracy that the framers deemed it necessary to include it in the Bill of Rights. In my mind, responsible or “reliable” journalism embodies respect for the ethical tradition of the craft. Can that tradition be transmitted without a framework of professionalism? Absolutely. But it’s hit or miss, and I’m not comfortable with those odds. As a journalism professor, Jarvis isn’t either, which is something he confirms every time he shows up in class to impart his wisdom to a new crop of students.

That being said, addressing the rise of citizen journalists by attempting to codify the profession with a grocery list of increasingly obsolete caveats is even more problematic.

It just so happens that in 2011 a federal judge laid out some legal precedent on the definition of a journalist in the case of a Montana-based blogger accused of defamation. According to court records and media reports, the defendant in the case, Crystal Cox, perpetrated a sort of journalistic extortion scam, writing disparaging (and highly inventive) articles about an Oregon-based company called Obsidian Finance Group and then offering them her services as a paid reputation management specialist.

When called to task in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, Cox claimed that her “work” fell under the rubric of investigative journalism and sought the protection of Oregon’s journalism shield law. In ruling against Cox, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez listed seven reasons why Cox is not a journalist, and, to many observers, seemed to set a pretty high bar for what it takes to qualify as one:

(1) Cox lacked any education in journalism; (2) she had no credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) there was no proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) she did not keep notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) she failed to adhere to a mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality with her sources; (6) her work was based on assembling writings and postings of others; (7) she didn’t contact “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

“Without evidence of this nature,” the judge wrote, the “defendant is not ‘media.’”

For the record, I agree with Hernandez’s assertion that Cox is not a journalist (and the judge did eventually clarify his ruling to indicate it was specifically tailored to the defendant); but there are a number of problems with the list he created.  For one thing there are plenty of real reporters who have no formal journalism training, and there are bona fide independent journalists who have no formal affiliation with a “recognized news entity.”  As for creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings of others, aggregation has emerged as a valuable source of information, and if conducted in the spirit of journalism it certainly qualifies as such. A caveat requiring journalists to always contact the other side, meanwhile, would negate all editorial and opinion writers from the journalistic profession.

If there is a single variable on Judge Hernandez’s list that differentiates real journalists from the blooming crop of wannabes, it’s number 3, establishing a requirement for embracing journalistic standards.  In a representative democracy, foremost among these standards is a dedication to the conscientious search for truth, wherever the trail may lead, and — at least to some degree — a willingness to put one’s own neck on the line in the interest of creating an informed citizenry. It is important to be impartial and open to new ideas, even if they challenge your own prejudices (yes, even journalists have them); but we should avoid the false god of objectivity, and his bastard son false equivalence. And in case it isn’t obvious, you don’t publish vitriolic hyperbole about people and their businesses and then charge them money to rectify the damage you’ve caused.

If nothing else, the transmission of professional standards justifies the continued existence of the professional journalist. Letting people make the rules up as they go along and hoping they get it right — or assuming that media consumers will naturally gravitate towards the people who do — is an ineffectual method for ensuring the continuity of journalistic ethics.  Instead we need people like Jarvis, Sullivan, Jay Rosen, Stephen J.A. Ward, and the myriad of J-school professors, reporters, editors, photographers, etc. who embody that ethic to pass it on. I personally have no problem calling those people journalists.

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