Friday, October 08, 2010

Defining "journalist" - enough already

The head of a press organization who I have long respect for has forwarded to me Leonard Pitts' latest rant about "citizen journalists."

In summary, Pitts argues that the antics of James O'Keefe, the conservative activist whose highly edited videos brought about the fall of the communty activist group ACORN, are hardly journalism even though some folks call them so. The column apparently was provoked by O'Keefe's latest exploit to, as CNN put it, "punk" one of its reporters.

(Though, as an aside, does it strike you as it did me that it seems like a whole lot of pixels are being spilled over not very much? Get a grip, CNN.)

Pitts is on solid ground in debating whether a specific person's actions, or even a specific action, is "journalism." But where he goes off the rails, as so many of these rants do, is by then trying to extrapolate to an overall rant about whether there is even such a thing as "citizen journalism." A taste of his argument:

``Citizen journalism,'' we are told, is supposed to democratize all that, the tools of new technology making each of us a journalist unto him or herself. It is a mark of the low regard in which journalism is held that that load of bull pucky ever passed as wisdom. If some guy had a wrench, would that make him a citizen mechanic? If some woman flashed a toy badge, would you call her a citizen police officer? Would you trust your health to a citizen doctor just because he produced a syringe?

Of course not. But every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a blog is a ``citizen journalist.''
Normally, when people forward to me these logical fallacies these days, I just reply "Sigh." The back and forth has become tiresome when most of the rest of the world has moved on. But I respect Pitts, and respect the person who sent me the link, and I continue to refine my thoughts in this area, so I responded. 
FWIW, read on:

"Citizens" can perform acts of "journalism." We can call it "citizen journalism."
"Citizens" can perform acts of law enforcement. We call it "citizen arrest."

We don't call the first journalists or the second cops. So I don't disagree with him at all.

The difference, of course, is that if the "citizen" keeps performing acts of law enforcement, we eventually say the person is trying to impersonate a law enforcement officer. But there's no such restriction on journalism.

So these really are pointless debates when people try to extrapolate the specific to the general. Yes, in a specific case we can argue - and probably make some kind of decision - about whether a person is a journalist, performed acts of journalism, etc. And I happen to agree with Pitts that this was not journalism.

But in his attempt to try to extrapolate that to the larger context, Pitts makes the usual inapt comparisons and logical fallacies.

You can't compare journalists to medicine/doctors or engineers or, lawyers, or, frankly, even plumbers, electricians, barbers and hairdressers. Society, in its wisdom, has decided there is a need to restrict entrance to those professions, to create a bright line, because there is some physical, economic or similar danger to the inept practice of those skills.

Now, if you and he are suggesting we should license journalists, then that's a different debate. But I suspect you aren't ... (See how easy it is to set up a logical straw man, as Pitts does?)

If you want to be logically consistent, let's compare journalism to other "professions," so defined by their members, but not by society:
- If I cook, can I perform acts of "chefdom"? Sure can. In fact, if I want to open a restaurant and call myself a chef, there's not a damn thing those wearing the toque can do about it. (And, if lucky, I will get a Food Network show.) But there is no requirement that I commit to any regular pattern of activity.
- If I want to wield a wrench, can I perform acts of "mechanicdom"? Damn straight. I can even call myself a mechanic and there's not a thing those at Joe's Garage can do about it, whether I want to do it under a shade tree or inside a garage, and whether I want to do it once or 100 times.
- If I want to perform an act of "journalism," can I do so? Sure as hell can. And if I want to claim I'm a "journalist," there's not a fig you or Leonard or anyone else can do about it (except jump up and down and throw a tantrum - same thing they can do at Joe's Garage or Le Chien Chaud). In fact, of course, the Founding Fathers gave us ALL freedom of the press.

The construct of "journalist" has mostly been a matter of convenience between economic and political forces that came about largely with the rise of the "press" as industry in the 1830s. It became in the best interests of the pols not to allow the hoi polloi to simply mill about and ask unseemly questions, and it was to the advantage of the growing members of "the press" to restrict access as much as possible so as to maximize the economic value of their investments. If you think about it, it's only in the halls of government (and by extension the cop shop), where you will typically find anything that even tries to define what a journalist is.

(OK, there also is modern sports as business that does so, but you can look at the modern sports league as either the "government" of its little niche or you can view the situation as two sets of business interests acting rationally under the laws of economics to enforce scarcity and thus increase the economic value. Of course, if the leagues suddenly decide they can maximize that value elsewhere, they will abandon any pretense and lump "journalists" in with the same contempt they treat the fans, or have we not learned anything from the kerfuffle last year with the SEC and the continuing tension in all of college and major league sports over press credentials, licensing rights, etc.?)

Back to our chef, mechanic and journalist -- the only thing in these cases that will determine whether I am a "professional" is the public's acceptance of my claim to some sort of professionalism. It will vote with its feet. If my food is good, people will come to my location if I keep holding out that I will feed them. If my repairs are good, friends, family and neighbors may continue to seek out my "mechanic's" skills. I might even be able to build a business out of it.

And if my "journalism" is any good and credible, people may seek me out for more, but there is no requirement I do more.

Actually, I like to think the semantics are what trip us up. I prefer to think that most people thrust into the moment are not performing acts of "journalism" but of "news." To me, "journalism" does require the more sustained effort Pitts advances. So maybe we should call them "citizen newsies."

But that's my construct, and it has no more or less validity than that of Pitts, you, Fox News or the man or woman walking down the street.

As Frank Drebin said in "The Naked Gun" - OK, people, move along. Nothing to see here.

BTW, citizens do perform acts of medicine. We call them Mom.

(For additional value, see Dan Conover's latest on the media - especially No. 5: If you wish to establish a bright line between a “professional” press and everybody else who creates and conducts journalism, then you must create specific standards.)



At 10/8/10, 2:06 AM, Blogger The Kleeneze Man said...

the reason you can give away the title journalist is because the people know that journalist roughly translates to
self serving scum.
Only journalists care if the title is given away , it has no effect on the public, NO ONE CARES.

Obviously, we all care if someone pretends to be a doctor, mechanic, well anything useful really, but why would anyone care if someone pretended to be a journalist?
For that matter why would anyone ever want to be described as a journalist??

At 10/8/10, 2:28 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Oh, I like to think there is some usefulness left in the job description, and sometimes we do get it right.

But I have to agree with your larger point: Journalism's effectiveness came with the perception, at least, that people had some respect for the craft. It made the pols and others at least grudgingly give due.

We've managed to piss much of that away (though I suppose one could entertain the idea that we may have just accelerated the decline that already was under way as part of institutional erosion theory - perhaps the press' greatest venality was believing it was an "institution").

At 10/28/10, 1:41 PM, Anonymous atlibertytosay said...

I had a court case that actually defined journalism as a function ... google for Bidzirk vs Smith.

At 10/28/10, 2:22 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Yes, I had seen the case.

I think it is useful, but not entirely definitive.

It was judged in the frame of the Lanham Act - the multipart test used under that act is not necessarily applicable in other situations. But it certainly provides a good framework to consider for when something might be "news."

It does not directly address the multifaceted question of whether the person producing that content is a "journalist."

It may sound like semantic splitting of hairs, but in the context of things such as shield laws and legislative access, it is not at all.


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