So you call yourself a journalist
Among the many things the Internet has thrown into confusion is who counts as a journalist.
This is not an idle or abstract question. Whom we call journalists has immediate implications for libel law and for whatever legal protections the courts and legislatures allow to remain for the practice of journalism. But putting information out on the Internet is manifestly a form of publication, and we have to face thorny questions.
The first is whether journalism can be called a profession. Medicine and the law have well-marked pathways to qualification. One studies a prescribed curriculum, passes examinations, receives certification from organizations of practitioners, is licensed to practice. Teaching and the cloth have similar but looser paths to practice. One does not necessarily have to have an education degree or teaching certificate to teach, and journalists may be akin to self-ordained storefront preachers.
The older sense of journalism as a craft learned through apprenticeship has not vanished. I myself (Lordy, lordy, children, hold on tight; he’s headed back to his youth again) got my training in journalism by working for six summers in high school and college at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Kentucky. I never formally studied journalism.
There was a good reason. (Oh, children, children, he’s in a loop.) At Michigan State, where I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, you could not take a course in journalism without first going through the Introduction to Communication sequence. I took the first course in the sequence, and it was a mistake. The text was a photocopied series of feeble essays by the department chairman, who attempted to disguise the absence of substance with references to Heraclitus and other figures whom I doubt he had read. The class sessions were enlivened by a series of short videotapes featuring two members of the department engaging in what they apparently thought to be donnish repartee. It was grisly.
The two graduate students in charge of my section grew visibly impatient with my complaining, so I shut my mouth, conducted a project (an unscientific and entirely unreliable survey), collected an “A,” shoved the text down the trash chute in Akers Hall, and shook the dust of that department from my sandals. When, years later, I abandoned a graduate degree and looked for employment, The Cincinnati Enquirer offered me a three-week tryout on the copy desk and promptly put me on the staff. I have been what is called a professional journalist for the 27 years since.
Now please, please, please do not conclude that I scorn the study of journalism. The curriculum has grown more substantial over the past 30 years, and the people who get degrees in journalism, especially graduate degrees, do substantial work. There are areas of journalism, including statistical analysis and computer-assisted reporting, that few people are qualified to perform.
But it is still the case that who has a grasp of the English language and who can internalize the values of news gathering can work as a reporter or editor without ever having studied journalism formally.
So anyone can be a journalist. Edmund Wilson called himself a literary journalist. He wrote essays and reviews for The New Yorker. If the word journalist can include Edmund Wilson, Matt Drudge and Geraldo Rivera, who can be shoved out the tent? In America, we have always resisted any kind of certification or licensing of journalists, and the roster of distinguished writers and editors at newspapers and magazines who lack journalism degrees suggests that the resistance was a good idea. That leaves us at the point that anyone who calls himself a journalist and publishes information on the Web has to be considered a journalist, at the bare minimum.
But we want and need to be able to make distinctions. If posting information on the Internet where anyone can read it constitutes publication, then what publication can be called journalism? Is the family Christmas letter posted on a Web site journalism? If it comments unfavorably on my table manners or drinking at the holiday table, do I have grounds to sue for defamation? There are laws to protect whistleblowers who expose corruption in the corporations or agencies where they work. Should we have equivalent protections for amateur journalists who do the same thing?
I am not a lawyer or student of the law, so I have no ready answers for the thorny questions. But I see that, just as the traditional publishers of journalism must grapple with the novel circumstances the Internet has thrust upon them. so too must the legislatures and the courts come to grips with the issues of what constitutes journalism and who can be called a journalist. What we will want is the widest scope for providing the public with information, combined with protections against recklessness and deceit.