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The Future of Journalism: Unpacking the Rhetoric

Panel #3: Unpacking “We are all journalists now”

Streaming video from this panel is now available | Watch Video


Theodore L. (Ted) Glasser introduced the panel by saying that the statement “we are all journalists now” is actually quite an old one, but that the barriers to entry to the profession have recently been lowered.  He said that self-identification isn’t good enough for deciding who’s a journalist: “Jon Stewart claims that he isn’t a journalist while Glenn Beck insists that he is.”

Scott Rosenberg asks “who is the ‘we’, what’s a ‘journalist’, and what’s the nature of ‘now’?”  Not everyone’s a journalist, Rosenberg argued and suggests changing the assertion to: “now, anyone can do journalism.”  This restatement aimed to focus the statement on an activity, one focused on the potential for participation.  But it leaves us with this question of what it means to “do” journalism and says doing journalism means “delivering an accurate and timely account of some event to some public.”  If you don’t care about accuracy and timeliness, you aren’t doing journalism.  He notes that charging for journalism is irrelevant to this definition — it doesn’t really matter whether you make money off this activity.  He said that there’s only two real areas where such definitions matter, legally, what a journalist is: when you need to dole out limited resources like seats at a press conference; and when you need to protect journalists who are engaged in risk-taking reporting behavior.  Journalists can get accreditation in different ways: the government can give you credentials (by recognizing your presence at the events they organize) but we probably don’t want the state accrediting the very people tasked with investigating them; or an employer can provide credentials (by giving you an association).  Essentially, Rosenberg says that we need to protect acts of journalism, judged by standards of journalism.  But, more fundamentally, Rosenberg argues the most critical question is one focused on the relationship between participation and democracy: namely, does an increase in the number of people doing journalism help facilitate democracy?  His gut says yes, but see his blog post for more info.

In introducing Bruce Brown, Glasser asked about the definitions of journalism under a proposed federal shield law.  Glasser asked what kind of blogger is not a journalist and what does regular reporting mean?  Brown responded by saying that the law can distinguish among people, denoting some people as journalists but not others, because the law has done it before (e.g., look at who gets postal subsidies).  The larger questions are should you –and how could you — distinguish among people, defining some people as journalists but not others, excluding some people from an industry while protecting others?  Brown recalled that, sometimes, the law creates functional tests for journalists (what do people do), versus a status test (have you published significantly?) or a test based on anonymity (perhaps journalists are people who don’t write anonymously).

Turning to C.W. (Chris) Anderson and Geneva Overholser and referencing a recent book review by Bill Keller, Glasser asked about the role of professional journalists, asking does there remain a useful catagory called a “professional” journalist and who would be included in it?  Overholser responded that the more critical question isn’t really how “professional” journalism is doing — or whether the new or old ways of journalism are winning — but, rather, how the public is doing in these new circumstances?  She emphasized that there are things, traditionally, that journalism hasn’t done well.  We need to recognize what these old failures were and, moving forward, we need to make sure that we do the best possible job of serving the public interest in whatever these new systems.

Anderson asked how professions get authority.  Sometimes they get degrees and certifications; other times they make appeals to public service (doctors serve sick publics, lawyers understand the law on behalf of publics).  Critically, what do journalists do that’s in the public service?  Anderson says that original reporting that serves public interests is how journalists can derive authority.  Anderson wants, though, to challenge this relationship between original reporting and democracy, asking what exactly is original reporting and how does it help democracy function?  Anderson argued that some reporting is surely original but it is kept private, not really serving democracy.  Further, Anderson argued that some kind of reporting — e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s aggregating of information during Iranian uprisings — isn’t really original, per se, but does serve democracy.  In sum, Anderson says that we can’t all be reporters all the time; reporting is best done by news organizations who pay reporters to report. But, he said, we can be citizens who participate in the news system, e.g., as aggregators.

Opening up the intra-panel Q & A, Glasser asked about the institution of journalism and whether this institution can nurture the practices of journalism?  Overholser first pluralized the question (said that there are institutions of journalism) and that it would be a shame if we lost large journalism institutions because we need some of these large institutional powers, e.g., the ability to withstand lawsuits and engage in the kind of reporting that might run the risk of incurring lawsuits.  She also said that there are some non-journalism institutions (e.g., Human Rights Watch) that do original reporting, but aren’t journalism organizations per se.  Rosenberg noted that large news institutions should be tasked with investigating authority, but noted that (e.g., in the run-up to the last Iraq war) sometimes even large journalism institutions fail.  Rosenberg didn’t think it would be a bad thing if we lost our existing news institutions — as long as we had some infrastructures that ensured the growth of new institutions that served democracy.

Brown—noting that he’s the only person wearing a tie—said that he certainly saw value in having large news organizations.  Blogs and newer forms and practices supplement large-organization journalism but they’re only supplements.  He said that we do need some kind of public policy approach to journalism, e.g., anti-trust exemptions.  Brown notes that the federal shield law is stalled and guesses that this might be because people are paralyzed with this question of who a journalist is.  He argues that we can move to other kinds of public policies.  Anderson said that we’re going to get institutions whether we like them or not — and that even new media organizations like Wikipedia are indeed institutions.  The critical question is how and why we want to shape these institutions.

Glasser concluded the formal part of the panel by noting that we couldn’t even have asked these kinds of questions 10 years ago — that this is a new and important kind of conversation.

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