How do you define ‘journalist’? Focus on social role

What the heck is a “journalist,” anyway?

We’ve grappled with that question for centuries, and it’s even more pressing given the pending federal shield law and changing nature of media.

Two academics took a crack at it by examining the definitions of ‘journalist’ in state shield laws and trade organization membership rules, including SPJ’s rules. Their research was published Monday in the N.Y.U. Journal of Legislation and Public Policy.

The conclusion? It’s a sticky mess.

Jonathan Peters and Edson C. Tandoc, Jr., culled through a variety of sources to boil down the most common definition of journalist (p. 61): “A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating (activities) news and information (output) to serve the public interest (social role).”

Peters and Tandoc rightly noted there are problems with how that definition has evolved, particularly when we talk about employment – that the person’s primary source of livelihood comes from journalistic activities. That excludes a lot of people who commit acts of journalism on their own time for the good of the public, or freelancers who might work a non-journalistic job to pay the bills.

Even SPJ’s bylaws definition of a professional membership is “Those who are… principally engaged… in directing the editorial policy or editing and preparing news and editorial content of independent news media products… students engaged in the study of these skills, and journalism educators.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “employed,” but it does rule out a lot of people who are doing professional journalism.

I just had a student tell me he was offered a job at a TV station for $8 an hour. If he takes it he’ll probably have to work another job, and under the employment definition wouldn’t be considered a journalist. That’s not right.

The two researchers agree that a better definition needs to be created.

Personally, I think we should lose the “principally employed” and “regularly engage” elements and focus on what journalism is really about: providing people the information they need to self-govern (Kovach and Rosenstiel’s definition).

The bottom line is journalism is about making the world a better place. It’s a social role, whether you get paid to do it or do it for love. Whether you do it 60 hours a week, or five hours a week. A journalist is independent, loyal to the citizen, verifies and informs.

That’s what matters – not what is listed on a W-2 form.


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