Fake news. Polarized political news. An anti-journalist U.S. president. All of these involve the definition of journalism. Added modifiers — “new journalism”, “citizen journalism”, “online journalism”, “main stream media” , etc. just make defining it even more confusing.
Many professionals engaged in it think journalism does have some basic characteristics. We just don’t talk about them as much as we should.
Journalism is generally not opinion. A right or left wing commentator does not become a “journalist” because he or she appears on a news channel or writes a column. A blogger or a newspaper columnist isn’t necessarily a journalist because he or she can publish online or in print, although they sometimes are journalists in both cases. They are expressing opinion. The massive increase in the number of opinions published online and on air is a healthy expansion of democratic traditions, but publishing content does not make it journalism.
Journalism has nine basic characteristics:
- Journalism’s highest level is “first person reporting”. If there is a battle in Afghanistan, we want a reporter there to say what he or she saw. Obviously everyone engaged in the battle has a strong opinion and would relate what happened differently. A journalist is a first person witness with no agenda. The same rule applies to a legislative session, a corporate shareholders meeting, or a house fire down the street. We’re there and tell people what happened without an agenda.
- Journalism is generally (but not always) unbiased. It tries hard to separate personal feeling from professional reporting, much as judges try to fairly assess cases they might have a personal opinion about. It tells the audience where the line is. There are some very good journalism organizations that come at information from a perspective, but they try to make that slant clear.
- Journalism uses attribution to point out what is fact and what is opinion. In other words, journalists try to tell audiences who said what– they name names, so audiences can assess credibility themselves.
- Attribution allows someone else to check if the information reported is correct. It thus becomes another characteristic, a de-facto cross-checking system where different media try to independently verify information. Independent verification is very important in journalism.
journalists don’t use descriptive adjectives. Journalists only use descriptions like “it was a horrendous scene” when they attribute them to a witness or the police, for instance. A journalist’s responsibility is to gauge what he or she sees against what others might describe, and report both.
- Journalism uses “two source confirmation” with controversial information. It tries to get at least two sources before publishing important facts to prevent spreading rumors or overt manipulation.
- If a story’s content is controversial, a journalist is obligated to seek out and present opposing views or explain why they are not part of a story. If the mayor is out of town and can’t be reached to answer opposition charges, the report should say that or include the mayor’s reaction.
- Stories are most often edited. We call it “a second set of eyes”. While we think what we write and broadcast is always fascinating and crystal clear, that is sometimes only in our minds. Real journalism has “someone else”– usually an editor or producer, review content before publication.
- Finally, journalism tries to avoid speculation. If a reporter doesn’t know an important story element, he or she is obligated to say that — and why he or she doesn’t know. If the police haven’t released the name of an accident victim by the time a story is published or a reporter is blocked from getting to a forest fire to see for himself or herself, they should report that.
There are many flavors and nuances of journalism. Most professional journalists would have other things to add or modifications they’d make to this list. There is also a new crop of people who haven’t been trained, publish online, and consider themselves journalists. Some of them don’t want any standards and would disagree with any list of characteristics.
But at the end of the day, everyone who publishes information isn’t a journalist and all information isn’t journalism. A passed-on email or blog might reflect your political philosophy but it might also be based on misinformation and rumor rather then solid reporting. There is a lot of that going around these days. It isn’t journalism.
Professional journalism uses the standards above. Reporters can be called into question or court for violating them. Applying these standards helps audiences assess the truth of the information they get. It helps them make informed decisions.
We owe it to the audience to continually explain how we cover issues and what our standards are. The standards are a scorecard, allowing audiences to tell if we are doing our jobs or not, and if other information sources are practicing journalism or something else.