What does it mean to do journalism today?
Firstly, we need to define what a “journalist” is. Cherian George of Journalism & Publishing in the Nanyang Technological University describes a journalist as “one who applies his or her powers of observation, investigation and enterprise to provide the public with intelligence and commentary about current affairs.”
Alan Knight notes that journalists were “once defined by where they worked”, whether it be in newspapers, radio or television. Yet the advent of the internet now provides a platform for anyone to be published on. In the modern media landscape, the broad definition of journalism in itself has invoked many blurred lines. What separates a blogger or a citizen journalist from a journalist working at the BBC, for example?
Knight distinguishes that to be a journalist, one must be defined by a professional code of ethics, seeking to create non-fiction. To differentiate between bloggers and journalists, Knight affirms that journalists need to have codes of practice, a salary, and a need to seek accuracy. On the other hand, bloggers, in their practice, do not need to have sources for their stories, by-lines for authors or a code of ethics.
Alex Gerlis of the BBC College of Journalism identifies two broad classes of journalists: professional and amateur journalists. He describes professional journalists as ones being paid for their practice. Gerlis also outlines three areas which separate the two types: the maintenance of professional standards; accommodation with amateur journalists (such as when using User Generated Content, for example); and formal journalism training.
Yet this categorizing can lead to further complications. Today’s definition of a journalist implies that one must be objective in his/her field. Yet in the Malay and Bengali world, as Cherian George points out, there is “little distinction between the journalist, the writer, the poet, the activist and the public intellectual.” Mahatma Ghandi, for example, was a newspaper publisher in both India and South Africa. George suggests that, “If you were to go back in time and tell these Asian writers that they would have to be disinterested and objective and reject advocacy or partisanship if they wanted to be considered ‘journalists’, they would probably reply, you can keep the label, thank you very much. And, if indeed this pantheon of Asian newspaper persons were to be excised from the institutional memories of modern journalism, we would be poorer for it.”
It would also be unfair to disregard completely the work of bloggers and amateur journalists. With the arrival of technologies in the 21st century such as smartphones and social media facilitating the spread of information, anyone who is at the scene of an event can provide often credible eye-witness accounts. Knight showed that following the events of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, “journalists faced spirited competition from amateurs, some of whom were located within sight of the Tsunami. The combination of Internet distribution and access to digital images and computerised editing allowed swift and often credible responses.”
Regardless of the evolving definitions of who and what a journalist is, their goal is unchanged: to educate the public. Singer (2014) notes that journalists are no longer society’s main information provider, making it important that they “never cede the ability to plausibly claim that what they contribute is credible and that their own actions are in service of the public good.” Whether this public is accessing information online, in print or on television, one thing remains the same: content is king (Knight et al 2008). To illustrate this point, the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism “State of the News Media 2012” showed that news consumption is the second most popular mobile activity, following only email (Pavlik 2013). Even with shifting modes of consumption, the need for quality journalism will always exist. In the somewhat ominous words of Palfreman (2006), the onus is now on journalists to find a way to adapt to this new media order or perish.
Knight, A., Gerlis, A., and George, C. (2008). “Who is a Journalist?”. Journalism Studies, 9:1, 117-131,
Palfreman, Jon (2006). ‘‘Caught in the Web’’. Nieman Reports 60(4), p. 5.
Pavlik, J.V. (2013). “Innovation and the Future of Journalism”. Digital Journalism, 1:2, 181-193
Singer, J. (2014) “Getting past the future: journalism ethics, innovation, and a call for ‘flexible first’”. Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 25, 2014, pp. 67 – 82.