Who is a journalist?

You’ve got to read this.

It’s a terrific column by C.J. Cornell for MediaShift Idea Lab about the Crystal Cox case. She’s the Oregon blogger who found herself on the wrong end of a lawsuit after she blogged about a company that she alleged was guilty of bankruptcy fraud. But she couldn’t prove it without revealing a source, and she wouldn’t do that — claiming that she is protected by Oregon’s shield law.

A judge disagreed, and she’s been ordered to pay $2.5 million to the wronged party. She has vowed to fight on.

So, what is a journalist? Or, as another journalism thinker put it, what is journalism? Anyone who can afford a decent laptop or cellphone, these days, is capable of disseminating information to as many other people as he/she is willing to try to attract via social media.

Let’s get this down to a single, provocative question: Should there be some certification/licensing of journalists? (Okay, and one follow up): Should a journalism degree from an accredited institution be equivalent to certification?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of such a notion. Go.

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22 Responses to Who is a journalist?

  1. He’s right, the “anointed journalism” theory does gives me the creeps. I recognize that he used the Bar as a potential comparison, but lobbyists could easily turn public servants against each other. Look at politics.

    I think if you had to have a degree in journalism that would widely limit the specialized journalists in the field. Many of them started in other professions—engineer to technology writer, for instance.

    That being said, I don’t have an alternative theory to propose. I think while citizen journalism is profoundly useful, it should be used as a tool for copy, not copy itself. We should clutch our press passes in protection and continue to be skeptical of how technology can deprofessionalize the field of journalism. That is the downside we can feel when we benefit from the extra help, the photo we wouldn’t have gotten.

  2. Reblogged this on To America – With Love and Squalor and commented:
    I think in light of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street events, it’s becoming more and more apparent that all citizens of the world can and should consider themselves potential journalists. Every human being reserves the right to know the truth and to hold those in power accountable for their actions and/or policies. Politicians and banking institutions hold tremendous power and have a wealth of connections and resources to help protect that power. Sometimes, however, the privilege of authority is abused and that’s when journalists and concerned citizens intervene. For instance, when citizens in the Middle East reached their breaking point with oppression and dictatorship, a massive systemic revolution began at their fingertips on social media sites and proceeded to captivate the globe. Millions, if not billions, of people stood by on Twitter reading page after page of updates regarding violent clashes between governments and civilians in Tahrir Square and beyond. Soon, protesters around the world stood in firm solidarity with the Middle East. At a time when foreign correspondents are spread thin, nothing could have been more important than citizen journalism. But I think a distinction must be made between the social media revolutions of late and the Crystal Cox case. 1) This is a financial story with some serious allegations, but no incriminating evidence. As an aspiring financial journalist, I am under the impression that, when accusing a banking institution of fraud, hard numbers that can be supported by documentation are absolutely vital. She has numbers, but no documentation. Even if an anonymous source gave her the numbers, she’d still need documentation to support the source’s claim. But no such thing is provided in her blog post. When you read stories about the 2008 financial collapse, there are solid numbers that are backed up by official documents, which lends legitimacy to the theory that bankers behaved recklessly, irrationally and irresponsibly. Cox’s allegations lack substantive support, and are therefore not legitimate and should absolutely be subject to scrutiny. 2) Cox’s blog post is laced with opinion and personal statements. While trying to accuse an institution of financial fraud, it’s necessary to write objectively as an individual while allowing the facts and the personal experiences of others serve the story’s purpose. From the Occupy Wall Street protesters to everyone involved in the Arab Spring, forms of verifiable proof were provided. The numbers needed to prove financial fraud exist; pictures of Egyptian citizens being gunned down by government authorities exist. Cox does not have this leverage in her story. Without it, she cannot be considered a journalist. Citizens do not need a degree to be considered journalists, but they do need to exercise judgment. Most citizens do. Cox, unfortunately, did not. That being said, I believe she should not be protected by the shield of journalists’ rights.

  3. Jessica Clark says:

    This is a tough subject. But I think the judge ruled correctly. Although the line between journalism and blogging is blurred I don’t think bloggers qualify for the protection of shield laws.

    The thing about bloggers is that they don’t have to answer to anyone. There’s no one behind them saying…are you sure this is correct? No editor to say “check again.” Is this accurate? What evidence do you have. etc. Bloggers are free agents, and in Crystal Cox’s case, often offer opinion as well as fact.

    So who are journalists? I don’t think journalists should necessarily have to graduate with a degree in Journalism. But a certificate wouldn’t be bad. I think both would be beneficial (otherwise I wouldn’t be majoring in Journalism) and help a person understand the responsibility of being a journalist. Words have so much power and you have to be careful about what you say because if you’re wrong you could really get your lunch meat handed to you.

    I do think that there should be a distinction between a journalist and a blogger. The best way to do this? Base it on where they work as the judge did in this case. Do they work for an organization or do they work for themselves on a blog?

    Journalists get certified pros:
    prestige for the field, knowledge of the law, learn to be a public servants, greater distinction between bloggers and journalists

    Journalists get certified cons:
    I can’t think of any. I keep thinking…”What would it hurt?” The market place of ideas would still be open. No one wants to limit the voices of the public. And I don’t think people operating in the field of journalism already would necessarily have to get a certificate. Couldn’t it be applied only to journalists currently coming into the field?

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  5. Caitlin Swieca says:

    I see the pros of the idea of certification, but something about it just feels wrong to me. The field of journalism doesn’t require specific skill sets the way law or medicine do. We do the things that people do normally – ask questions, gather information, and spread it – just in a much more formal and specialized way. As the profession is meant to serve the public, a certification just seems a bit elitist, especially at a time that journalists are looking to reach out and connect with their audience in new ways.

    That being said, most bloggers are not journalists, and I don’t think they deserve the same Constitutional protections, especially when they don’t properly cite or fact check their posts. However, I think there’s something to be said for Cornell’s assertion that courts will continue to define who deserves constitutional protection unless the journalism industry takes matters into its own hands. I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the idea of certification, but it would depend on the thoughtfulness of the chosen criteria.

    I think an accredited journalism degree would be sufficient grounds for certification, but as others have pointed out, so many journalists come from other fields that it would be important to not lock these people out of the process.

    • reedkath says:

      I’m not totally sure that I agree with the assertion that journalism doesn’t require a specific skill set. It may not be as highly specialized as what one must learn to practice medicine, certainly. I don’t know… it feels to me that we as journalists practice a method of inquiry that requires us to ask deeper questions in a more challenging way (testing assertions for truthfulness) than most people do. And we certainly must prepare for some of the ethical challenges that the practice of journalism throws in our path.

      Having said that, though, I also feel funny about the idea of certification. Doesn’t seem quite right, but something is needed, maybe, to differentiate the trained journalist from the anybody.

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  7. Nina Pantic says:

    I think there’s a huge distinction between a professional journalist and those that blog their opinions, tweet without credibility and capture videos on their cell phones at the right moment. The reason journalists could be embracing the civilian journalist is because one of the goals is to work for the community and for the people. If the people want to be active, participating members then it makes sense that the journalism industry embraces it since journalism serves the people.
    Professionals take credible sources, proper ethics and fact checking extremely seriously since their entire reputation and the credibility of the media source they work for counts on it. A citizen journalist has less consequence for messing up and thus I think they shouldn’t be protected the same way. The case of Crystal Cox should, among other things, serve as a warning for those that blog a little too freely. Freedom of speech and rights of the press are critical to the journalism world but not everyone should fall under the same protection. I think a level or “bar” of professionalism and either a degree or credibility by title/employment is absolutely necessary to keep false information and bias at bay. Now more then ever, anyone can say anything on the Internet. I am far more likely to believe a story written by a legitimate news source than a random writing from a blog or even a less established media source.

  8. Karee Hackel says:

    Reblogged this on Karee Hackel and commented:
    I can see the pros of certification for journalists, but for some reason – it just irks me. The profession of journalism is meant to serve the public – answer their questions, spread the truth, generate newsworthy content. I have to agree with another classmate when saying the notion of a certification seems a bit elitist. Journalist are meant to be the people’s people. We want to relate and each out to our audience. I think that a certification may cause journalists to be placed on a certain pedestal, which would make us seem slightly not relatable and out of reach to our readers.

    Blogging is something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyone can blog. You can blog. I can blog. Your next door neighbor can blog. What differentiates blogging from journalism is the consistency and accuracy that always must be present in reliable journalism. Bloggers can post without proper citations or fact checking. Bloggers can simply post with no repercussions to their actions. By posting onto their unique, blogging domain, they lack the credentials of a well-known and well-respected publication. Journalists are held to a certain standard of presenting the truth. The truth is not easily found or certified. It’s a process that requires dedication and knowledge of journalism standards. I don’t think that bloggers can always be considered journalism due to their lack of knowledge of these standards.

    The journalism industry needs to take initiative and make their own assertions about who and what deserves constitutional protection. The idea of certification is something that needs to be examined as such great lengths. So many amazing journalists come from other career fields and professions. I’m mostly afraid that journalism certification would steer these individuals away from delving into the world of journalism.

  9. I really liked this article because I think it brings up what is on a lot of peoples’ minds. It’s a tough position to be in because we don’t want people ruining the name of journalism, but at the same time I doubt anyone wants to take away camera phones (because there’s no denying they have become quite useful). I really like the comment about how painting a room does not make someone a painter and I don’t really see a problem in the Anointed Priest idea. It would help differentiate those who deserve shield laws and those who abuse them. (Also, how much do Shield laws vary from state to state? And what defines an official media establishment? If pamphlets and newspapers count, why can’t blogs count? Also what if it turns out the things that Cox was claiming about Padrick are true?)
    All in all I think even though the internet seems like old news, everyone is still adjusting to it and we should stop trying to define what journalism is and wait until after everyone catches up with the increasing reign of technology. Weather the “storm” until we find a new place to stay. In the mean time we just have to figure out what real journalists’ competitive advantages are (or make new ones) and exploit them so we are giving people something that no citizen journalist can.

  10. The internet has become at 18th century version of the coffee house. People could say what ever they wanted with little punishment because the ideas and opinions where shared through speech. Someone would receive a pamphlet and the locals would discuss the information between themselves and let the market place of ideas run its course. The difference now is that the marketplace of ideas is shared through written word over the internet. The ideas expressed on blogs are permanent and can be harmful.

    The internet has become a minefield of people looking to bash each other and to get to a credible website, where the information has been fact checked, you have to sift through a lot of crap, for lack of a better word. People say that journalism is dying because anyone with a computer or phone and input their opinions and news out to the world. To me, it seems like journalism has reached a higher level of importance because of this. We need people who know what they are doing when they put out information.

    A journalist today does not need a journalism degree, but I know that when I am looking for information, i want to see that he/she has a byline from a credible news outlet. “Credible news Outlet” seems to be just has hard to define as journalist nowadays, but they are out there. I think this conversation about the journalsits can be summed up from Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity. “I know it when I see it.”

    We may not be able to define a exactly what a journalist is in 2012, but I hope that people will know what to look for when gathering information.

    • reedkath says:

      I know what you mean by “I know it when I see it.” Aren’t we talking about media literacy then? Isn’t that what is needed in this vast marketplace of information? People need to learn how to evaluate news and information sources for validity.

  11. I’ve always believed that certain areas of coverage can determine the level of either journalist or just eager resident. If it’s something local that you’ve captured, I know it’s a form of journalism, but I feel like the public kind of runs that type of thing. But if it’s something way bigger that requires permission, and credibility, etc, then that’s I guess a “real journalist.” My views on this are kind of hard to explain. You appreciate the eagerness and the interest, because things happen when you have the passion, and it’s how a lot of people are getting discovered now. I guess the difference is the amateur feel to what’s being reported and or photographed. You’re more likely to take someone seriously if they’ve spent time honing their craft. I probably make no sense, and I rarely have any comment, which is why I usually don’t post/reply to a post, but it was worth a shot 🙂

  12. Tony says:

    As a journalism student, I would love to say with conviction that journalists should be licensed and that a journalism degree should be that form of licensing. Although most laud the ability everyday citizens have of performing journalism, the opposite is true for me. It is discouraging to think anyone can do journalism because it takes away from students such as myself, and I personally don’t like or trust bloggers who don’t work for a professional news organization. The difference is credibility and verification.

    That being said, I don’t think there should be some sort of official certification of journalists. I say let the public decide for themselves who to trust and not trust with news. Any person can accuse companies of bankruptcy fraud or corruption, but why should I believe you? A blogger can have a personal agenda against a company and write a blog, pass it off as factual and generate a big audience by claiming something outrageous, which for all we know may be exactly what Crystal Cox did. If she does not want to reveal her source, that is her choice. But it is also my choice to not believe her and question whether her information is accurate.

    I think the notion of all citizens acting as journalists should be left to more cut-and-dry journalism. For example, pictures of a riot or a few sentences here and there about an extraordinary occurrence can be posted by curious citizens. But with something as complex as fraud at a major company, the public should not necessarily take bloggers seriously, especially if they don’t reveal their sources. Accuracy is obviously important in journalism. With news organizations that have credibility for accurate reporting, the public can and should believe in the process of journalism. That is, a reporter gets an assignment, talks to sources, checks and re-checks their facts, works with their editor and makes sure nothing is out of context.

    So while I do not believe there is any need for an official licensing of journalists – that seems unnecessary to me – the best thing for journalists to do is have faith that the public will continue to rely on the process of journalism that is successfully carried out at credible news organizations. If a blogger wants to do all that, he can go ahead and do so. But I believe it will take years for a blogger to gain true credibility, especially if he or she wants to take on investigative-type stories that take time and multiple sources.

    -Tony

  13. Ben Nadler says:

    I think that the question is not “Who is a journalist?” but “What is journalism?” That is, I think that journalism must be measured by what is being done, not by who is doing it.

    Journalism is an act that you engage in, rather than being a background or a degree or a job or a laminated card with your picture on it that you flash to authority types. Ordinary citizens with no specific training can become journalists while operating in certain capacities, like recent citizen reporting out of Syria of Libya, and should be protected as journalists while undertaking this work.

    However that doesn’t mean that every crackpot with a domain name and a blog is a journalists. In the case of Crystal Cox, it doesn’t sound like she was engaging in journalism, but more likely just writing her opinion about a company she doesn’t like, and using misinformed facts to do so. If literally everyone is a journalists at all times than shield laws would be meaningless. A definition of what is journalism, rather than who is a journalist, is essential to maintaining the potency of shield laws.

  14. chrisroll13 says:

    I feel that the “who is a journalist” question is one of the most slippery of slopes we tread upon. I also cringe at the idea of journalists requiring license to identify themselves simply because the freedom of the craft is part of what appeals to me. I honestly believe there are plenty of people out there who are far more qualified than I to report the news, despite lacking a formal education in journalism.

    That’s not to say journalism degrees are not without their merit. I learned enough during my prerequisite courses alone to get me an internship with a newspaper back home, and I quickly earned a reputation as a good, thorough worker. I owe that to the J-school here, because without those classes, the only job I could have gotten at that newspaper was a job in the warehouse, stuffing in advertisements. But I don’t think getting the education should be the ONLY way to become a journalist.

    I think the ultimate measure of what constitutes a journalist is purpose. If you legitimately seek to inform, if you consistently seek out accurate information with the goal of serving the public, then yes, I think you could probably be considered a journalist. If you’re just publishing outlandish “Weekly World News” fare or trying to stir up trouble through libelous or otherwise dishonorable means, then I’m a little less inclined to give you the professional label.

    Y’know, I can see why people would argue for the “Anointed Priests” approach. Frankly, I’ve used it myself, because as Journalists-with-a-capital-J, it’s easy to look at ourselves as set apart, as an outside force bringing the enlightenment of news to the huddled masses at large. But we’re not anointed, except by ourselves. “Ye shall know them by their fruits” seems to be a pretty accurate description of how journalists are defined. Again, we work with a purpose, to inform. We strive to be accurate, to not skew the facts or further an agenda that is misleading or malicious. We’re not wearing a “Magic Hat” that gives us license to do whatever the heck we want.

    So yeah, in closing, I don’t think there should be any kind of official certification to make somebody a journalist. You can be a journalist without any formal degree, but, as I said, the degree is just what helps to make us BETTER journalists. The degree is a blueprint for teaching us the vital journalistic lessons we need in condensed form, as opposed to learning them the hard way through trial and error (although there is still some of that in the J-school experience). However, when it comes to legally defining journalism, I feel it is the content, not the qualifications of the individual, that are to be judged. If someone really is working with a journalistic purpose, then I think that person is a journalist.

    But again, that’s just my two cents. I’m absolutely willing to consider other viewpoints.

  15. Are you a certifiable journalist?

    I think a Journalism certification of some kind is exactly what this field needs to distinguish a true journalist from an opinionated blogger. Bloggers have no one to answer to, so they often have “opinion” as an excuse. Personally, I feel that I have been studying for so long to be a journalist, that I don’t see why some kind of certification or, better yet, test couldn’t be developed to distinguish a journalist from other writers. As journalists, we know that we have editors to answer to, an accuracy check, audio recorders and other tools we use to be 100% accurate with our readers, can bloggers say that? Often the answer is no.

    I think that journalists have a clear set of skills and education required to do their job correctly, just as in law and medicine. There are consequences for when a lawyer, nurse, doctor, etc. does their job incorrectly, as there are consequences when a journalists does not report accurately. I am all for a certification. I feel that there is just too much nonsense written on various blogs, so it all comes down to credibility. If we as journalists must study and earn the trust of our readers, we should also be recognized for our certification as journalists thus establishing CREDIBILITY.

    That being said, citizen journalism is a necessity today. Without it, journalists would have a difficult time keeping up with the constant social networking of breaking news and information. While I think citizen journalism is important, it is the journalists that should be expected to write the truth. While I wouldn’t ever wish to ban bloggers by any means, I would advise readers to take caution when getting your “news” from bloggers. If you want accurate, factual, researched, edited information, rely on the reporters you know are required to carry out these steps.

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