Friday, September 19, 2008

Who or what is a journalist?

According to Ed Smith, who has spent 30 years as a newspaperman, the question is about to become obsolete and inconsequential. He wrote a post today on the NSCL blog, The Thicket, on the dilemma of state capitols across the country in determining who is qualified to get press credentials. In particular, should bloggers be allowed access to press boxes and news conferences?

You'd think Mr. Smith, who is currently managing editor of State Legislatures magazine, would side with mainstream journalists, but he looks at the issue in practical terms, and he concludes that there never has been, nor will there ever be, a definition of "journalist". He contends that there is no licensing or board testing involved, and that's the way reporters and editors want it. In the end, journalism is not a profession, but a craft, he writes.

Smith's observation is that a younger generation of reporters find the question moot. They may be hired as a reporter, but chances are they are also being asked to blog, tweet, and take pictures too while they're at it. Accuracy and ethics will always be issues, but defining journalists is headed for the recycling bin.

For further reading, Smith points to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review - The Bigger Tent by Ann Cooper. Cooper's question is Forget Who is a journalist; the important question is, What is journalism? It's an excellent piece for anyone interested in figuring out who belongs under the Big Tent of Journalism. Here's an excerpt:

Access Soon after former radio and wire-service journalist Jim Van Dongen became a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Safety in 2003, he found himself confronted with press-pass applications from unpaid Internet bloggers and community-radio talk-show hosts. His first reaction: they’re not “legitimate” journalists. His second reaction: we need a definition of who is.

It was Van Dongen’s third reaction that was surprising. After trying out different criteria—journalists write for pay; they do original reporting, not just opinion writing—Van Dongen concluded that none of the criteria worked. In today’s digital world, he says, “essentially, anybody who says he’s a journalist is one.” So this past January, Van Dongen’s office announced that it would no longer issue press passes. “Either we must issue such ID to virtually anyone who asks for it or be placed in the position of deciding who is or is not a legitimate journalist. That is not an appropriate role for a state agency,” the department said in a January 15 news advisory. Though stunning in its symbolism, the New Hampshire decision didn’t have much practical effect; Safety Department press passes were rarely needed, except for access to the state legislature floor.

Nor have other institutions rushed to copy Van Dongen’s response to the credentialing dilemma. In institutional worlds such as government, politics, and business, many in charge of press operations still cast a wary eye at requests from outside mainstream media. It’s not that they’re inundated with applicants; many institutions say blogger requests are still something of a novelty. But they’re not at all sure what to do with someone who doesn’t look like a traditional journalist. Last January, for example, the retail chain Target e-mailed blogger Amy Jussel to say it wouldn’t answer her questions about its ad campaigns because “Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets.” Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union went to court in February to force the release of all recent New York Police Department decisions on press-pass requests; the action is aimed at determining whether, as some independent online writers claim, the NYPD denies cards to applicants who don’t work in the journalistic mainstream.


Ric Cantrell said...

Hi Georgette. Nice post. You know, we've been toying with the idea of a two-tiered media credentialing system here. Would love to have your thoughts on that.

In a nutshell:

First tier: Institutional Media (traditional news organizations like print media, Radio and TV stations, etc.). Second tier: Citizen Media (bloggers, podcasters, tweeters, and other 2.0 applications). Second tier gets less privilege but would still be given some access and recognition.

Intellectually, it's not 100% clean, but it would work. For a while. Until the next wave.

The fundamental concept for me is the story of what happens on Capitol Hill needs to be told to our Board of Directors (citizens), and I don't care if the medium is dead trees, txt msgs, Twitter, iPod, Facebook, or CB Radio. As long as it's the truth. And multiple perspectives help people discern that truth.

A democratic republic is what we're trying to build and protect. That requires citizen engagement. I don't see why we'd deny anyone who was willing to help.

Doug said...

As a blogger, I think the two-tiered system is a terrible model to adopt. But I'd like to hear how you defend it, Cantrell.

Thanks for the links, Georgette.

Ric Cantrell said...

Happy to answer, but help me out here first, Doug. Do you think bloggers should be credentialed equally with traditional media outlets? Or do you think states should scrap the whole media credentialing gig, like New Hampshire did? Why do you think it is it a terrible model?

Doug said...

Oh no you don't. You first. :)

James Gonser said...

This is something that we've wrestled with as well. Here are my initial thoughts, and I emphasize that they are my thoughts as Comm Dir and not those of the House Majority.

When we have a press conference out in the open, such as in the rotunda, the question is moot. Anyone can attend, and I suspect that our media advisories are circulated freely as well.

The question of credentialing only seems to affect a couple of days a year when the chamber is packed, and that is Opening Day, and the State of the State address.

If anything, I'm more concerned that mainstream media are covering the capitol less and less, which is why it's a good thng to reach out to bloggers and others who are disseminating information. It's to our advantage that they get accurate information.

So, I guess I'm leaning toward getting proper "Identification" (so that we know who people are) as opposed to credentialing. I know that Sgt-at-Arms is concerned about security, and rightfully so. While that's another issue, it comes into play.

Doug said...

I would have no problem with some sort of ID for those (traditional and blog) using the media box in the legislative chamber.

It's the two-tiered credentialing that needs some explaining. What would be the difference in access/privileges?

Whenever you're ready, Ric.

The Senate Site said...

Doug - I didn't forget you - but we're in the depths of a Special Legislative Session. I'm looking forward to your feedback - but give me a few days.