Let’s Stop Defining Who Is a Journalist, and Protect All Acts of Journalism

    by Josh Stearns
    October 28, 2013
    Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following is an opinion piece from correspondent Josh Stearns, and portions were adapted from Stearns’ report, “Acts of Journalism: Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age.”

    This summer the Society for Professional Journalists debated a proposal to change its name to the Society for Professional Journalism.

    "The accumulated knowledge of the past is not sufficient to create a definition of journalism that suits the future."

    The resolution didn’t pass, but the 100-year-old organization did vote to support a separate resolution that “rejects any attempts to define a journalist in any way other than someone who commits acts of journalism.” SPJ’s move is part of a growing consensus that argues we need to move beyond trying to define who is a journalist and instead ensure that we protect all acts of journalism.


    Two reports released last week tackle this question from very different perspectives. Jonathan Peters and Edson Tandoc wrote a post on PBS MediaShift headlined “Defining a Journalist Is Messy, But Crucial.” Their research focused on using “scholarly, legal, and industry” texts to determine common elements of how a journalist is generally defined.

    What emerged is a definition that even the authors themselves won’t stand behind, calling it a “fatal blow to new forms of journalism.”

    Don’t Look to the Past for Journalism’s Future

    Photo by niclas and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by niclas and used here with Creative Commons license.


    Their work is important because it highlights the danger of relying on conventional wisdom at a moment of such profound change. The accumulated knowledge of the past is not sufficient to create a definition of journalism that suits the future.

    At the same time that Peters and Tandoc were compiling their research, I was at work on a complementary project with a different emphasis. At the core of my research was the idea that everyday Americans are central to the future of journalism as news consumers, distributors and increasingly as creators. As such, we need a framework for press freedom that protects longstanding journalism institutions alongside these new participants.

    So rather than trying to define who is a journalist, I focused on trying to define an act of journalism. “If the ultimate idea is to protect newsgathering activities,” journalist Marcy Wheeler wrote earlier this year, “then why not establish what those activities are and then actually protect them, regardless of whether they are tied to a certain kind of institution?”

    In my report, Acts of Journalism: Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age, I reviewed case law and statements from leading journalism associations, bloggers and journalists advocating for an acts-of-journalism framework. While there is an emerging consensus on protecting acts of journalism, how we define those acts is contested terrain. Below is a summary of the debate, which focuses on three ways to define actions of journalism: ethics, behavior or service.

    Journalism Is Rooted in Ethics


    Photo by Digital News Test Kitchen  and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Digital News Test Kitchen and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Journalism organizations and newsrooms have long promoted ethical codes with a similar set of standards. Journalists’ adherence to these codes has often been held up as a sign of their legitimacy. However, Ellyn Angelotti of the Poynter Institute has argued that in a shifting media landscape those who seek press freedom protections should be “judged according to an evolving set of standards and practices.”

    The Poynter Institute’s new ethics guidebook accounts for new acts and actors who are part of the journalism landscape. “Technology has so drastically altered how news is gathered, processed and understood,” Tom Rosenstiel said in announcing the book, “so it’s critical the formal ethics of journalism accommodate those changes. News always belonged to the public. Now the ethics of journalism must consider the role of the audience, and the impact of community and the potential of technology more fully.”

    Thomas Kent, the Associated Press’ deputy managing editor and standards editor, has proposed a seven-point “ethical test” to assess acts of journalism.

    Journalism Is How We Behave

    However, our ethics tend to be measured through the yardstick of our actions, and thus, others have made the case that journalism is a function of our behavior more than our beliefs. Making the case that the Pakistani man who live-tweeted the raid that killed Osama Bin-Laden is a citizen journalist, Steve Myers, writing in Poynter, outlines five behaviors he sees as central to an act of journalism: The man answered questions, acted as a conduit for information, sought and shared reports from news sources, traded what he had heard with others and analyzed what was happening.

    In his book Mediactive, Dan Gillmor outlines five different principles for trustworthy media creation: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency. “These are universal principles,” he writes, “not just for people who call themselves journalists but for anyone who wants to be trusted for what they say or write.” He views these virtues as guidelines to acting honorably in the marketplace of ideas.

    Mathew Ingram, who has tirelessly documented the debate over defining who is a journalist, argues that journalism is a process. “Learning how to work within that process,” Ingram writes, “to add journalistic skills (however we define them) to the streams of information that are flowing over us, is more crucial than ever, regardless of what we call the people who do that.”

    Journalism Is a Service

    Taking this idea one step further, longtime editor Melanie Sill argues that journalism is not just a process but a service. She writes, “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities [and] making quality journalism a collective endeavor.” Sill also highlights the need to transform journalism “from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.”

    Jeff Jarvis echoes Sill, arguing that we should define journalism in terms of the service it provides. “Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves,” he wrote recently in the Guardian. “So anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism.”

    The truth is that acts of journalism embody elements of each of these definitions in complex and inconsistent ways. In the report, I offer one possible way to weave these various definitions together. But my biggest takeaway from this research is that these debates are symptoms of real fundamental questions about press freedom in American at a time when the press is changing all around us. These issues are bound up in questions of trust and accountability in journalism and in government.

    So far, the debate over who qualifies as a journalist has taken place primarily among journalists and policymakers, with little or no community involvement. People everywhere have a stake in this debate, both as media makers and as news consumers, and we should engage them in these conversations more deeply. They are not just our audience, but also our allies in the fight ahead.

    More Reading

    Why Defining a Journalist Is Messy But Crucial, by Jonathan Peters and Edson C. Tandoc, Jr.

    Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of “Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy,” “Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules,” and “On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media.” Find him on Twitter @jcstearns.

    Tagged: acts of journalism citizen journalism defining a journalist digital journalist media shield law press freedom
    • seldridge

      I agree, in part, and while I think the accumulated knowledge of the past is not sufficient, it is not unnecessary (herein lies the difference in logical arguments of sufficient and necessary factors). I don’t think Stearns would disagree on this point. The problem Stearns alludes to, and I’d agree with him on, is that when outdated definitions of journalism are used to try and define journalism now, as an effort to wrap new forms around previous forms and functions, they become restrictive and exclusive.

      Where I think we can gain quite a bit from the accumulated knowledge of the past is it allows our understanding of journalism (the act or the actor) to be grounded in something coherent, and then we can unpack the way that coherence is maintained. Put another way: we might agree acts are better definers of journalism than actors, but the way those actors came to be defined (or define themselves) as journalists is useful. If for no other reason than that new definitions will also incorporate those defined as journalists under old constructs, mapping the parameters of a new definition of journalism will draw on the criteria that informed journalistic belonging to offer a conciliatory definition that suits more.

      In all of this, and the intellectual challenge it presents, is that an overly diffuse definition will struggle as much as an overly narrow one does now, so some middle road needs to be paved.

      Preferably one that is more welcoming to the range of people performing journalistic roles nowadays.

    • hartpandrew

      Well put Josh. This needs to be read in every newsroom and journalism class.

    • Hitch-22

      First of all, Josh, I agree with everything you say in this post. However, there is one important issue missing; one that raises concerns for the SPJ, and that is the role the government might play in such a definition.

      In an article on a federal shield law (which I have written on here: http://hitchensamiswrites.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/the-federal-shield-law-and-some-implications-of-it/) the SPJ suggests that offering a definition of what makes a journalist a journalist may in fact lead to some rather worrying things:

      The government may choose to impose a form of licensing of journalists, that could lead to censorship on a grand scale – particularly if the government holds the monopoly on the issuance of press credentials. I have taken the SPJ concerns to a higher level because I believe they haven’t gone far enough in terms of the very real danger to press freedoms.

      Also, what is the criteria for defining what a journalist is? Who creates that criteria? How broad is the definition? There is – as you’ve noted – a large community of very good bloggers out there who are not credentialed journalists. What happens to them in this scenario?

      There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered before such a definition is implemented by the SPJ (of which I am a professional member), particularly with respect to how a shield law would offer journalistic protections, and who it covers.

    • Isn’t what is protected in our constitution simply public speech in any form? Haven’t we conflated “the press” as a communication technology with ‘the press” as a particular class of people engaged in journalism? Isn’t “The press” in context of the first amendment a means of expression, like speech and assembly? Why should someone who is a journalist have special rights? Isn’t fear in the Fourth Estate actually necessary for the 4th Estate to function as an independent check on government? http://bit.ly/1dQHwsJ

    • rogerwilson

      Why define journalism or journalistic acts? Why try to create a special class of people with special freedoms? Are not freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedoms of self expression available to all?

    • Simon Morice

      In ‘Elements of Journalism’, Kovach and Rosentiel do an excellent job of exploring this subject. A summary of the principles at http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles-of-journalism/ illustrates the first purpose of ensuring that citizens of a free society may make informed decisions at the ballot. They also raise the idea that it’s more important to ask “who is doing journalism?” than “who is a journalist?”. This book is a must read for anyone hoping to make sense of the yellow mess that journalism has become again.

    • Robbie Moraes

      There is no such thing as an act of journalism. You either work for a news site or you do not. A journalist needs to work at an established news source (like the NYTImes) to be a journalist. Just because we have cameras now all over the place, does not mean us journalists. It just means we take pictures.

    • Padowski

      Roger is right. Defining an act of journalism is as wrong as defining the journalist. This idea that journalists somehow have greater access to the 1st Amendment is repugnant and it’s all but sure to bite us in the hindquarter eventually. Standing up for the 1st Amendment we’re on solid ground. Deviating to create special definitions is a stroll through a mine field with no hope of missing the mines. We can’t even entertain this discussion without tossing a proper level of humility to the wind.

    • We’re micro-managing what is already provided in the 1st Amendment.

      But we can all be “journalists” now (everybody), and that should come with a set of responsibilities (that do NOT add or subtract from our 1st Amendment protections), so simply define that “code”… those “responsibilities” if you’re acting in a journalistic capacity. Again, nothing that adds or subtracts from our already-granted 1st Amendment protections.

      When you’re acting as a journalist, by “doing journalism,” you need to adhere to a certain standard for the practice.

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