Who's a Journalist? Closing in on a Definition

The debate over "who's a journalist" is getting more urgent. Fortunately, the outlines of a definition are becoming clearer. Might some basic ethical tests help in further drawing the lines?
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The debate over "who's a journalist" is getting more urgent. Fortunately, the outlines of a definition are becoming clearer. Might some basic ethical tests help in further drawing the lines?

Once mainly a subject for navel-gazing at journalism conventions, the defining-a-journalist debate has now moved dramatically into the field of law. Most recently, the U.S. Senate has grappled with the question in drafting a media shield law to protect journalists' confidential sources.

The draft law's definition of a journalist echoes a clear new trend in describing what a journalist is. It moves away from the tradition of saying a journalist is someone linked to a traditional media organization or who gathers news "for gain or livelihood."

Instead, the bill approved Sept. 12 by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is closer in spirit to the idea that journalism is an activity rather than a job. The bill classifies a wide variety of people as journalists and even provides for federal judges to extend the "covered journalist" umbrella to others.

Some would argue that the bill still doesn't go far enough. Journalism is simply the act of disseminating news to the public, they say, and the term can apply to anyone.

Such a broad definition, however, would embrace everyone from a traditional reporter to Edward Snowden to a teenager live-tweeting from a rock concert. Unless journalistic shield laws are ultimately intended to apply to the entire population, legislatures and judges must be able to limit the definition somehow.

Clearly, any definition established in law these days must take journalism beyond the traditional media establishment. But how far?

Personally speaking, I would argue that a set of basic ethical tests, applied to a person's body of work, could build on the idea of journalism as a service and help supplement the definition of a journalist for shield law purposes.

These tests could include:

  • Is the person's product intended for the general public?

  • Is the work creative and analytical rather than a simple relay of raw information?
  • Is the reporting based on facts rather than fabrications? Are statistics honest, images unmanipulated, quotations correct?
  • Does the product convey multiple points of view? Some worry about any attempt to define journalists as on-the-one-hand-on-the-other hand reporters. Any journalism, they claim, contains some degree of advocacy. But in my view, "objective" journalism does not require that all views be given equal weight. A reporter or columnist who harangues the consumer with only one side of an issue, however, ignoring or distorting what opponents say, is more a polemicist than a journalist.
  • Does the person or his organization guard against conflicts of interest that could affect the product? If conflicts are unavoidable, are they publicly acknowledged?
  • Does the person reveal his or her identity and contact information?
  • Does the person publicly correct errors?
  • Some will say that these tests are not as simple as they look. They're not simple at all. But they are no more complex than many other issues dealt with by lawmakers and judges.

    They could also be seen as overly tough, especially on writers who campaign strongly for a cause or on whistle-blowers who expose documents that reveal wrongdoing. But I'm not talking here about the right to express an opinion or to reveal information to the media or the public. I'm talking about the narrow need for definitions in shield laws aimed at protecting journalists from having to reveal their confidential informants.

    As such, these tests are a step toward distinguishing between, in the terms of Stephen J.A. Ward of the University of Oregon, "agenda-driven activists" and "investigative journalists with a valid cause."

    They also reflect some issues raised at a fascinating seminar on journalism, privacy and security at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which hosted some leading advocates for press freedom and shield laws.

    Pondering boundaries for shield laws, participants suggested that a person who simply leaks information without analyzing it might not be entitled to coverage by a shield law. Josh Stearns of Free Press suggested that a history of covering news with "ethics and a real journalist's sense of about things" might give a person a claim to legal protection.

    I'll be quick to point out a downside to the tests enumerated above: Any formal definition of a journalist can be used for unscrupulous ends. While intended here only for shield law situations, these tests could be used by authoritarian regimes to license journalists or to strip protection from critical commentary. It is also important to recognize that these tests may need to vary by country or culture, to take into account local traditions.

    Still, of the possible options for defining journalists in shield laws and in court, ethics may offer a promising path.

    Thomas Kent is the standards editor of The Associated Press.

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