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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Murrow turning over in his grave

Reader-submitted question: Do you currently work in journalism?

I'm not really sure what to make of this question, because this reader knows that I am no longer working as a news reporter.

I currently work as a writer and editor. I am not employed by any news agency. (Not long ago, a reader suggested that CBC might want to fire me because I have criticised their management in the past. This might be true, but as I haven't worked for them in years, they are out of luck.)

It's debatable whether my columns on this site could be considered journalism. I do not do original reporting or research for this blog, but I do provide commentary on issues of public concern. I probably wouldn't call this "journalism", but I suppose you could make that argument. There is no licensing body: anyone can call himself a journalist.

It used to be obvious who was a journalist and who wasn't. If you worked for a news agency, you were a journalist. If you didn't, well, you weren't. Thanks to the Internet, those distinctions have disappeared.

The medium is not important when determining whether a person is a journalist: many bloggers qualify. To figure out if a person is a journalist, you need to evaluate the way he assembles material and his purpose in presenting it.

Many people assemble material and intend to make their findings public in the public interest: investigators, researchers, ombudsmen, etc. However, a journalist is usually an amateur rather than an expert in the subject matter. (He might think of himself as something of a "professional amateur", though.) He researches things that he is interested in researching, and he is expected to present material from a variety of sources. "Balance" is important: there are usually at least two sides to a story, and both of them should be included. Some news organizations strive for balance in each individual story; others provide balance over time.

A journalist's purpose in presenting material is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society. This makes reporting one of the most honourable jobs in our society, and it's the reason we need to keep an eye on the way this job is done. I often hear about how so-and-so is much too critical of some agency: that's usually part of a journalist's job. They are watchdogs in our society: they do the research you and I don't have time to do. But abuse of this role can hurt the entire profession. The Project for Excellence in Journalism calls this the journalist's "obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain."

"Journalist" is a general word that can be used to describe dozens (maybe hundreds) of separate jobs: photographers, editors, producers, reporters, columnists, critics. Some of my work on this site might make me a columnist or a critic, and I will occasionally publish something that is strictly about editing. Other entries are really in something closer to a diarist style, which is not journalism.

Thanks for your question.


Karen said...

Hi Meg.

While I greatly enjoy what you and a number of other Northerners do with your respective blogs, I wouldn't call any of them journalism, for precisely the reasons you identified. They are personal stories or anecdotes, they are critiques, but they do not purport to be well-researched, "objective" pieces, and that's fine. My blog is all about opinions or observations, and that's my intention. As you well know, I was a reporter for a decade, and what I do now is completely different. Not better, or worse, but different, and I'm OK with that. And you should be too.

That doesn't mean some of your opinion pieces can't focus on contemporary journalism, and its merits or lack thereof. You've got enough history that you've earned the right to be critical of Name of Paper Withheld's shortcomings, as well as the national media's faults and foibles.

scribe said...

If you were writing this blog for a newspaper, you'd be called a columnist or a media critic (of course I'm talking about your posts about the media as opposed to the David Hasselhoff awards)! A position which is still, in the MSM anyway, considered a journalist. And a mighty fine one, too.

The Coconut Diaries said...

Wow! I just felt like I was in class. Will I be tested on this later?? Multiple choice or essay???