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Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do — not something you are

July 1, 2013

By Mathew Ingram

There’s been a lot of debate lately over the question of who qualifies as a journalist — an issue most recently flagged by the public editor of the New York Times, after the paper referred to a reporter as an “activist” rather than a journalist. The same charge has been levelled at Glenn Greenwald based on his reporting about former CIA staffer Edward Snowden, with some accusing the Guardian writer of being an advocate rather than a journalist. So who should qualify as a journalist? This is the wrong question.

As NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan notes in her post, there has been an attempt by many traditional media outlets — including the New York Times itself — to slot Greenwald as a “blogger,” and therefore somehow less worthy of respect or credibility (or legal protection) than a journalist would be. Journalism professor Jay Rosen mentioned the same thing in a recent post, arguing that critics like “Meet The Press” host David Gregory have been trying to “read Greenwald out” of the journalistic fraternity.

This is more than just navel-gazing by the media. As I tried to point out recently, the issue of who is a blogger and who is a journalist could determine how Greenwald and others are treated by the courts — and by the government itself — as the leak investigations continue. That’s why accusations like the one Edward Jay Epstein made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about how Greenwald may have “aided and abetted” Snowden (a piece that led to a heated discussion between journalist professor Jeff Jarvis, Michael Wolff and News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti, which Jarvis turned into a Storify collection) are so important.

For some, the idea of a journalist being a passionate advocate for a cause is anathema, since it goes against the principle of objectivity that we associate with journalism. But as Matt Taibbi argued in a recent piece for Rolling Stone magazine — and Jarvis also argued in a recent blog post on the topic — almost all of what we call journalism is advocacy of some sort or another. Some journalists are more obvious or transparent about what they are advocating for than others, a principle that has led media theorists like David Weinberger to argue that “transparency is the new objectivity.” As Taibbi put it:

“All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC… or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald.” Read the rest of the story in paidContent.

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