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‘Journalists’ or ‘Journalism’?

Posted: November 1, 2013 8:50 a.m.
Updated: November 4, 2013 5:00 a.m.

There’s a debate going on within the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), of which I am a member:

Should the SPJ change its name from Society of Professional Journalists to Society for Professional Journalism? If the society were to do that, how should it define “professional journalism?”

Indeed, in this day and age of blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and “new media” websites, the question of what makes someone a professional journalist is important beyond the SPJ’s needs. It’s important for you, too, not only as news consumers but, sometimes, news creators.

It’s also important from a public policy standpoint as Congress continues to work through a proposed federal “shield law” (the Free Flow of Information Act) that would protect -- under most circumstances -- reporters from having to “reveal confidential sources or other information.”

More importantly for me, however, is the basic question of whether or not you -- the reader -- can trust what someone has written, whether on paper or online.

The SPJ is reexamining its bylaws and code of ethics while other groups conduct studies in an attempt to define journalism and who is a journalist.

I recently learned that two men -- Jonathan Peters of the University of Dayton and Edson C. Tandoc Jr. of the Missouri School of Journalism -- have conducted one of these studies. They ended up with what they consider a common definition of a journalist: “Someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing and disseminating news and information to serve the public interest.”

Peters and Tandoc say, however, that the definition they discovered is “not a recommendation” but “simply unifies the elements that others have used to define a journalist.” They call it an “unwise” definition because it excludes “unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists who gather, process and disseminate news and information on matters of public concern.”

In essence, the authors said, whether paid professionals or not, all of these people are “committing acts of journalism.”

I’ll admit, as a somewhat “old school” journalist, I have a hard time agreeing that opinionated bloggers and folks that simply capture video on their smartphone are committing true acts of journalism.

Michael Koretzky, a Florida journalist who is director of SPJ Region 3, is the one who came up with the idea of changing what “SPJ” stands for.

I have no problem with the change, per se. I like the idea of defining professional journalism. Why?

Because of that matter of trust I mentioned. Let’s take a story on the Affordable Care Act. Are you more likely to trust an in-depth, well-written article by someone who is trained to acknowledge but set aside their prejudices and experienced in gathering and sifting through multiple sources for an established newspaper ... or a blog post written by someone who may or may not have an axe to grind, doesn’t have the experience or connections to reach out to sources and who might not care about who they hurt along the way?

Let me put it this way: I’m assuming most people want heart surgery performed by someone with years of medical education and experience in that specialty. In my opinion, journalism is just as important -- perhaps not to your immediate health, but to the long-term, democratic health of the community, nation and world.

So, you ask, what about all the non-professionals “committing acts of journalism.” But are they?

Koretzkey suggests the SPJ train bloggers (and I assume others) to engage in responsible journalism. Would that really happen? How many regular Joes and Janes would take the SPJ up on such an offer?

To me, there are three types of people that get into “journalism.” First, there are those who have a passion for telling the stories of their communities and acting as watchdogs over elected officials. They work for established news organizations (newspapers, TV stations and certain websites) and adhere to certain principals -- as passionate as they can be about their work, they are dispassionate in the telling of their stories, keeping their opinions off the front page.

Next are those who have an interest in a particular area and, perhaps creating a blog to do so, post missives, videos and photos to be part of an online community focused on that issue, hobby, person, place or thing.

Third, there are those who actively work for or against some particular issue, etc. What they post -- and I would dare say blogs and certain websites would be the best examples -- may look legitimate, but if you pay attention, they are one-sided, often parroting material they agree with from other sources.

That’s not to say they are “evil.” Oh, some might be -- they’re just out there to “get” someone. Most, however, may be engaged in legitimate PR work, even if working independently, to bring about some kind of change they feel strongly about.

The latter examples may be fun to read, even informative, but they are not professional journalism in my view. While they should certainly be protected under this country’s basic free speech rights, I don’t think they should be legally defined as engaging in journalism.

Of course, you say, you’re a “professional journalist, of course you’d say that.” Well, yes, that’s true.

So, I’ll ask you, the “non-professional,” what do you think? Are you a journalist just for posting something on Facebook, Twitter or on a blog?


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