What is journalism? It’s the wrong question
By John F. Kirch
There has been considerable debate in the U.S. news media over the past two weeks between pundits, politicians, reporters and editors over just what constitutes journalism and who should be considered a journalist.
The debate was sparked when some reporters began to question whether The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald is a legitimate journalist. Greenwald was not only responsible for breaking the story about the U.S. National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation (an act of journalism), he has also been involved in helping his source of the information, Edward Snowden, avoid prosecution in the United States for leaking details about the NSA program to the news media (political activism).
The debate heated up again when U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., wrote a column in the Chicago Sun Times on June 26 saying it was time for the federal government to define who is a journalist and thus deserving of certain protections not otherwise provided to the public.
The debate has many practical implications. For one, Congress will have to define “journalist” if it passes a federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to reveal confidential sources. The main question would be: To whom does the law apply? Would a journalist have to work for a news organization? Would a blogger who reports news from his or her home be protected? What about someone who tweets important information? Is that person a journalist or just a witness to an event?
Perhaps the questions themselves are the issue. According to media scholars Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, we should not be asking ourselves what is journalism or what is a journalist. The more relevant question, they have argued, is “what is journalism for.” In other words, what is the purpose of journalism in a democratic society?
In their 2001 book, “The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach and Rosenstiel give this answer: “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self governing.”
They elaborate by discussing nine elements of the journalistic process:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
- Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens
- The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification
- Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover
- Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power
- Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and comment
- Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant
- Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive
- Journalists have an obligation to personal conscience
Of course, Kovach and Rosenstiel expand on each of these points in great detail, and one should read the book to understand the full nuance of their argument.
But to me, the four main points to consider are the ones about truth, verification, independence and comprehensiveness. A person can be considered a journalist if he or she collects as much information as possible, sifts through that information to verify that it is true or comes as close to the truth as is humanly possible, and then reports that information in a way that is as objective and comprehensive as possible. A reporter is a person who can separate facts from values and report only the facts so that citizens in a free society can make rational political decisions.
This does not mean that the reporter has to be personally objective. This is impossible. But the reporter should follow an objective method of collecting and disseminating news. The reporter should be able to recognize arguments that are supported by evidence and those that are not. And the reporter should not be afraid to point out when one side in a debate cannot back up its arguments with facts.
Undoubtedly, this is an oversimplification of the reporting process. But by viewing the current debate about journalism through the prism Kovach and Rosensteil provide, society can take the first steps in the digital age of recognizing when the information they receive came from a trained journalist and when it came from a person who simply witnessed an event.
John F. Kirch is an assistant professor of journalism at Towson University and the editor of this blog.