In the endless debate about what the “future of journalism” holds, “journalism” doesn’t have a very clear meaning. We’re in the midst of hot arguments over who is a journalist, whether social media is journalism, whether data is journalism, whether cherished tenets like objectivity are necessary for journalism. As the print advertising model that funded the bulk of working journalists collapses and forces transformation, it’s pressing to know what is worth preserving, or building anew.
After decades where “journalism is what journalists do” was good enough, there is a sudden a bloom of definitions. Some claim that “original reporting” is the core, deliberately excluding curation, aggregation, and analysis. Others say “investigative reporting” is the thing that counts, while a recent FCC report uses the term “accountability journalism” liberally. These are all efforts to define some key journalistic act, some central thing we can rally around.
I don’t think I could tell you what the true core of journalism is. But I think I have a pretty good idea of what journalists actually do. It’s a lot of things, all of them valuable, none of them the exclusive province of the professional. Journalists go to the scene and write or narrate or shoot what is happening. They do months-long investigations and publish stories that hold power accountable. They ask pointed questions of authorities. They read public records and bring obscure but relevant facts to light. All of this is very traditional, very comfortable newswork.
But journalists do all sorts of other things too. They use their powerful communication channels to bring attention to issues that they didn’t, themselves, first report. They curate and filter the noise of the Internet. They assemble all of the relevant articles in one place. They explain complicated subjects. They liveblog. They retweet the revolution. And even in the age of the Internet, there is value to being nothing more than a reliable conduit for bits; just pointing a camera at the news — and keeping it live no matter what — is an important journalistic act.
The what is a journalist question reminds me of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s attempt to define porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
Over at Fuel Your Writing, Eric Kuentz takes Ernest Hemingway’s “write drunk; edit sober” edict to heart and sacrifices himself to a boozy experiment: where will a case of beer, a bottle of Chianti and some brandy bring his writing.