Journalism is a profession. It is an evolving profession, but it is still a profession. In his book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations,” New York University professor Clay Shirky argues that the profession of journalism is vanishing with the amateurization of publishing. He likens the fate of journalists to that of scribes in the 1400s, whose profession disappeared with the invention of moveable type.
There is no doubt the profession of journalism faces its toughest challenges with the evolution of the digital age. Today, publishing doesn’t require ink, paper, a printing press, an editorial board, or even an editor. Anyone can publish. Shirky argues, “Everyone is a media outlet.” But can anyone be a journalist?
Shirky questions the outdated Oxford English Dictionary definition of journalist, as “a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.” In today’s world, that definition does seems odd and impossibly narrow. But Shirky remains far too focussed on the issue of publishing and fails to look more closely at the profession of journalism and the skills and knowledge required in the profession.
If we use Shirky’s logic, it makes sense to step back and look not at the definition of “journalist,” but at the definition of a “profession” and a “professional” before we dismiss journalism as a profession. According to Merriam-Webster:
Profession: a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation
Professional: characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.
Knowledge, academic preparation, technical and ethical standards are all traits that have been obtained by journalists. A “journalist”—as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary—has specialized knowledge in how to obtain public records, interviewing skills, how to handle anonymous sources, ethical standards, and copyright law. Anyone can publish, but not everyone has obtained those specialized skills. Not everyone who publishes information on a website is a journalist.
The Downside to Mass Amateurization of the Media
To demonstrate the fate journalists face, Shirky looks at what has already happened to professional photographers. With the spread of digital cameras and online photo hosting sites like iStockPhoto.com, photography has become ubiquitous on the web. Shirky quotes the work of Jeff Howe, author of “Crowdsourcing“:
“Howe notes, the price from a professional photographer was over $100 (after a discount) per photo, while the price from iStockPhoto was one dollar, less than one percent of the professional’s price.”
Who would pay $100 for a photo when they can find a similar photo for $1? “The success of iStockPhoto suggests that the old division of amateur and professional is only a gradient rather than a gap,” argues Shirky. But new research from Nielsen suggests that web users have become more savvy than Shirky gives them credit for. They know the difference between a $1 iStockPhoto and a photo taken by a professional photographer. And they want to see the latter.
“We’ve seen audiences become more cynical of stock photography over the years, especially in the corporate area of websites,” the Nielsen study, College Students on the Web reports.
Is the same attitude toward amateur journalism likely to arise in the coming years? There is no doubt that professional photographers have a set of skills and technical knowledge that the average person submitting to iStockPhoto or Flickr does not have. It has taken some time, but Internet users—particularly younger users—recognize that difference. It’s easy to surmise that they will begin to recognize the difference between journalism produced by publishers—people without skills, technical or ethical training—and journalism produced by journalists.
Without training—particularly ethical training—bloggers and other publishers can throw a wrench into what is otherwise one of the most exciting aspects of the new journalism ecosystem.
“From now on news can break into public consciousness without the traditional press weighing in,” writes Shirky. “Indeed, the news media can end up covering the story because something has broken into public consciousness via other means.”
That is a powerful statement and is at the heart of a new breed of journalism that is more of the people and for the people. Yet, it ignores that “the people” includes groups or individuals with interests that might not be for the common good.
In Sept. 2009, James O’Keefe, a blogger for BigGovernment.com, dressed as a pimp and secretly videotaped officials from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The officials’ conduct, seen in videotapes O’Keefe edited, put ACORN under intense scrutiny. Fox News quickly picked up the story, forcing the other 24-7 cable news channels to pick up the story as well for fear of being scooped or appearing biased. Despite the dishonest editing of the ACORN videos, the community organization lost government funding and was forced to file for bankruptcy.
With the speed of information and news in today’s system, it’s becoming easier for a person or an interest group to manipulate the collaborative nature of media today to influence news, government, policy, and the entire fabric of our country.
Are You a Journalist?
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their new book “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World” write in their chapter “The Demise of the Newspaper” that “the dichotomy between amateurs and professionals is blurring. Many bloggers (28 percent) are now professionals in that they make a living blogging.”
Their analysis follows a similar logic to Shirky, who notes that journalistic privilege is becoming a tricky legal issue because the definition of a journalist is being blurred by the mass amateurization of publishing.
But Tapscott and Williams expand on their first statement to acknowledge the skills acquired by journalists. “[Bloggers] are professional in another sense too: 40 percent of these commercial bloggers have worked within traditional media,” write Tapscott and Williams. “They have formal journalism experience, training, and credentials.”
Notice the Merriam-Webster definition of a professional makes no mention of making money, but focusses instead on the second point of Tapscott and Williams—the point missing in Shirky’s chapter—training and credentials.
If training, knowledge, technical and ethical standards become the benchmark of what makes a journalist, the line between amateur and professional becomes less blurry.
The journalism world, the legal world, and any organization or person dealing with the media are all desperate for some clarity on the issue of who is defined as a journalist these days.
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, recently decided to ban Internet-only journalists from the NBA team’s locker room. “I think those websites have become the equivalent of paparazzi rather than reporters,” said Cuban.
Michigan state senator Bruce Patterson sought to clarify the issue of who can be defined as a journalist by introducing Senate Bill 1323, which would license journalists in the state of Michigan.
He was largely ridiculed for the idea by the press and free speech advocates. But Jack Lessenberry of the Toledo Blade had a point in his defense of Patterson’s bill:
“You have bloggers and editorial writers who write about what we are doing who never come up here and have no idea what’s going on. If I need a plumber, I want one who has credentials and who is licensed by the state.”
Is it so strange an idea to expect journalists to pass a test for certification or licensure? Real estate agents, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, doctors all take tests to ensure that they have gotten the appropriate training and have retained the knowledge necessary to perform in their profession. Other countries require journalists to be licensed.
There is no doubt that journalists have been slow to evolve with the digital age, but they are beginning to catch up. They can no longer compete with the general public or bloggers at breaking news. Journalists can cede that role to “publishers”—anyone who posts real-time news to Twitter, blogs, or anywhere online.
Instead, journalists can become the historians of a real-time news environment. They are equipped with the knowledge, technical skills, and connections to provide context, reflection, and analysis on the real-time news. They can work more closely with the public to provide the kind of news they are interested in and they can use their brand and audience to, as Finley Peter Dunne said, “comfort the afflicted” and “afflict the comfortable.”
They cannot do all of those great things if the world can’t tell the difference between a journalist and someone with a Twitter account or a WordPress blog.