New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reignited a controversy recently in the journalism, blogging, and information communities.
She asked what has become an iconic question over the past decade. This time, it was posed within the context of revelations about the United States National Security Agency’s “information-gathering” operations, Edward Snowden’s leaks about government surveillance on our enemies and our allies, and the fact that Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian (Sullivan calls him “an outspoken civil liberties advocate”), broke several of those stories.
It’s this: “…Who–and what–is a journalist?”
“It’s not just about semantics,” Sullivan says, citing “a strong legal component” to the discussion. The question is also about sorting out “who” qualifies under federal shield law “protecting journalists who have promised confidentiality to their sources, if it ever comes to pass. Will it cover only established news organizations or those who get paid for news gathering? Or does it cover everyone with a Facebook page,” she asks.
It’s a discussion that’s been discussed publicly and in smaller news circles everywhere since the ground began to shake beneath traditional journalism’s feet. I can identify with these issues and questions regarding today’s mixed bag of news purveyors and outlets—from both the official news industry point of view, and in behalf of those who enjoy having lots of information available. I was trained in traditional journalism theory and practice, was a newspaper reporter for several years, and have worked with reporters and editors ever since. I share some of the angst surrounding the industry’s shifting winds and the integration of all types of new media into the information landscape. I sometimes feel a little twinge that anyone can turn an online presence and an internet connection into worldwide publishing platform. But I also see the broadening of news outlets, citizen involvement in conveying information, having more and diverse voices, and changing news trends as good things in the big picture.
When Public Editor Sullivan started the “who is and isn’t” discussion, referencing a New York Times correction characterizing someone as an unofficial news provider, she offered:
“There’s nothing wrong with being a blogger, of course – I am one myself. But when the media establishment uses the term, it somehow seems to say, “You’re not quite one of us.”
And she offered her take:
“A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.”
That piece prompted “thoughts from all over, and plenty of heat,” Sullivan said, offering some of that feedback in a follow-up column. She reported that:
- CUNY Journalism School Professor Jeff Jarvis said Sullivan’s ask is, “the wrong question now that anyone can perform an act of journalism: a witness sharing news directly with the world; an expert explaining news without need of gatekeepers; a whistleblower opening up documents to sunlight; anyone informing everyone. It’s the wrong question when we reconsider journalism not as the manufacture of content but instead as a service whose goal is an informed public.”
Jarvis added that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist “John McQuaid felt the need to ask why Greenwald is driving other journalists crazy. He concludes that asking who is (and isn’t) a journalist is often “a prelude to delegitimizing their work and what they have to say…Read: journalists v. bloggers.”
- New York magazine writer Johnathan Chait compared NSA story-breaker Glenn Greenwald to renowned consumer advocate Ralph Nader, rather than characterizing him as a journalist “Greenwald, like Nader, marries an indefatigable mastery of detail with fierce moralism. Every issue he examines has a good side and an evil side.”
- Sullivan notes that NYT Media Equation columnist David Carr earlier had observed: “In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two “isms”—journalism and activism—is becoming difficult to discern.” He said: “Activism— which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery—can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored.”
Journalistics, a blog about PR and journalism, referenced a 2010 study which found that 52% of bloggers consider themselves journalists. Blog founder Jeremy Porter wrote then of a truism that has only intensified in the ensuing years:
“Regardless of your position on the topic, it’s clear that bloggers are gaining more and more influence. Audience size is growing for many, and collectively bloggers have a reach equal to or greater than traditional media across many categories.”
Five years ago, the NPR show “On Point” had a panel of guests speak about the issue. Andrew Sullivan was set to observe then that with “bad news continuing for the newspaper industry,” the “best kind of blogging could lead to a “golden era for journalism.”
News has changed forever, and that’s okay. Information is everywhere now, not only in a few select places. Yesterday’s “official” editorial channels are only one part of the equation. It is to everyone’s benefit that more information is available through more diverse, “non-establishment” sources. Everyone can choose where to receive their information. However, with the proliferation of that commodity, it is also up to individuals to discern the veracity, credibility, and integrity of the “who,” “what,” and “where” of the information they consume.