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Towards a definition of journalism

By Reg Rumney

What exactly constitutes “journalism”? How can it be defined accurately enough to encompass not only the various denotations but all the connotations that the term can give rise to – connotations aided by various representations in film and literature? These are not limited to fiction: All the President’s Men[1] has probably led many an unsuspecting soul to toil in newsrooms, idealising as it does the idea of journalism a vital and crusading calling in the service of democracy.

Not all depictions of journalists themselves are flattering. Representations of journalists in Hollywood fiction, for instance, have been and continue to be as both heroes and villains, the “flawed hero” fighting for the public’s right to know and the money-grubbing egoist interested only in competitively breaking news stories, regardless of the cost to those who are the subjects of the story.[2] Yet where journalists are portrayed as evil, the observations of Saltzman in the interview cited show that fictional journalists are often seen as evil because they are betraying the ideals of the profession rather than encapsulating them. When they are struggling to do their jobs, this is often in the face of manipulation by publishers, the money men who control news behind the scenes. Citizen Kane springs to mind here. This then would support an idealistic conception of journalism as ethical and public-oriented.

It is not at all clear whether that idealistic conception matches reality. The popular representation of journalism may only give us a clue about journalism but is nowhere near definitive. So, again, what is journalism?

A Google search for “Journalism is” returns the suggestions “dying,” “the first draft of history,” “is not a crime,” “the fourth pillar of democracy,” and “printing what someone else …” This last is a reference to the saying, “Journalism is what someone else does not want you to print,” and is ascribed to George Orwell, though variations are attributed to others, including newspaper publishers. None are that helpful.

Two approaches can be made for defining journalism. The first is the essentialist idea of journalism: what essential characteristic makes it possible to describe something as “journalism”.

The second approach is descriptive. Previously, defining journalism in terms of duties and rights derived the definition from the end-product: a journalist wrote news for a newspaper or broadcast news for a radio or TV station. News and entertainment (not always so easy to dissect) were what enticed consumers to pay for the product or persuaded donors or the state to pay.

In the Internet era, this simple product definition is no longer adequate. Thanks to the Internet, mass media is no longer necessarily the preserve of capital. Or to overturn the old adage, “Freedom of the Press is no longer confined to those who own the Press.” The problem of how to determine who is a journalist and who not was shown starkly by the decision of the US Justice Department to charge Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act and the insistence that he does not deserve protection as a journalist.[3]

Two further problems present themselves. The answer to the question, “What do journalists do?” is broad and tends to be circular. No professional guideline exists, because in South Africa journalists are not required to register to work as journalists, unlike in some other countries around the world.[4] Union membership stands in for registration in some countries – and it has been suggested that journalism is more trade than a profession – but South African journalists are largely un-unionised. In any case, this leaves the vital question of definition to labour unions which might not be representative of all journalists and whose interests in bettering wages and working conditions might not align with journalistic interests. In my experience, journalists accept long hours of work because that is the only way they can report properly.

Moreover, as the case of Assange shows, issues of definition are far from simple. Defenders of Assange claim his persecution by the UK and US governments arises from his work as, essentially, a journalist in uncovering war crimes. Charles Savage, writing in the New York Times, pointed out: “For the purposes of press freedoms, what matters is not who counts as a journalist, but whether journalistic activities — whether performed by a ‘journalist’ or anyone else — can be crimes in America” (my emphasis).

But what are journalistic activities? It should be obvious that the discussion of what journalists do conceals the normative aspect of journalism. In other words, describing what journalists do cannot be separated from what they should do. No one would bother to defend Assange if they thought his “journalistic activities” fell into the area of celebrity-stalking. The essentialist conception of journalism must entail moral imperatives. Those moral imperatives do not necessarily clash with the necessity of earning money to survive as an individual or an organisation. No one thinks less of the baker or plumber for wanting to make living but looks to the baker not to adulterate his flour with chalk and the plumber not to take shortcuts that will flood the house in a week or two.

Here, many would tend to rely on media or journalism studies for journalism ideals, but it must be stressed that universities are not technical training colleges and journalism tends to escape the Ivory Tower. Academics detect in journalists and journalism lack of self-reflection and depth (mea culpa in retrospect). Journalists, in turn, perceive academics to lack understanding of the world of tight deadlines and pressure to perform with decreasing resources in a competitive environment. Perhaps the real problem lies in the conception of the kind of knowledge journalism represents, being closer to “mētis,” as described by James C Scott, than epistemology: “Broadly understood, mētis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.”[5] The details of the practice of journalism, its technical elements, change constantly. Blogging has come and gone as demand on reporters’ time, to be replaced by a Twitter presence, for instance.

Where do journalists turn for some idea of the essential foundations of the craft? My estimation is the book published by Kovach and Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism.[6] Being rooted in US journalism it applies to the South African context, whose newspaper traditions are Anglo-American, so it cannot claim universality but it is a good starting point.

Top 10: The Elements of Journalism, by Kovach and Rosenstiel[7]

  1. Journalism’ first obligation is to the truth.
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
  9. Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
  10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

Asked about what journalism means, journalists themselves will often answer along the lines of clichés such as “holding power accountable,” or “speaking truth to power.” This 10-element list, whatever its inadequacies, is useful in describing what differentiates journalism from, for example, public relations and, critically, locating the practice within the democratic rights and duties of citizens.

I stress that this list is normative, not simply descriptive. It may even be argued that it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but it is a set of principles that can and should inform the practice of journalism without elevating it to a profession, with the regulation that this entails.

This is not to let journalists off lightly or settle the issue of what journalism is conclusive. If we are as serious about our craft and of freedom of speech as our protestations would have society believe, journalists need to self-reflect more. Among the issues that we need to reflect on is whether the news media are “the eyes and voice of the suburbs,”[8] biased towards the already powerful. We should also ask ourselves whether we are aware enough of our own inevitable prejudices and whether our newsroom routines and practices are sufficient to protect against a lack of ethics, confirmation bias, disinformation from malevolent anonymous sources and documents and dirt leaked in pursuit of political agendas. Do we sometimes mistake stenography for reporting? And we should query whether the damage was done by “he-said, she-said” journalism, thinly researched “scoops”, and insufficiently identified advertorial do more to damage a news outlet than the revenue they bring in. Examples are copious.

An approach, moreover, that essentialism journalism as the pursuit of truth, albeit functional truth, is more likely to make a positive difference than the tendency to fixate on technical and technological aspects. In the words of Carlin Romano, “Too many foundations and universities breathlessly fasten on the bells and whistles of new technology, as if tweets shall save us all, rather than attending to longstanding gaps in journalism education.”[9]

Journalism education need not only or at all take place in the academy; short courses can achieve as much if designed properly. Whatever the news platform, new approaches to reporting have come to the fore in response to a perceived crisis in journalism in the West: solutions-based journalism, for example, promises to mitigate the sense of helplessness some news coverage unintentionally creates. Narrative journalism promises creativity and a way to overcome growing news avoidance. All forms of journalism, however, could benefit from transparency by the journalists, which increasingly is being seen as a way to increase audience trust. How that is done is still up for debate, but among key elements are providing context, information about sources and describing what the public interest element of the story is.

None of what I have written here do I think is the ultimate answer to the difficult task of defining journalism for the purpose of the inquiry. What I do know is that the approaches I learned as a journalist from my colleagues in the newsroom have stood me in good stead in a number of areas outside newspapers and broadcasting. Chief of those was the unstated basic requirement that the work of a reporter be non-fiction. Reporters were supposed to find out what was happening and tell the public. A report on a municipal meeting and the investigations of amaBhungane have this in common, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, to find the truth. The search for truth, however that idea is construed and however difficult the search, indeed the need to know, is a more noble quest than settling for a contest of conflicting opinions, a situation the words of the poet Matthew Arnold capture well: “Where ignorant armies clash by night”. This is the alternative of a world without news craftspeople and without news organisations. It is not an opinion that tyrants fear, but a hard fact about their rule.

[1] Jordan Orlando, “William Goldman Turned Reporters into Heroes in ‘All the President’s Men,’” The New Yorker, November 27, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/william-goldman-turned-reporters-into-heroes-in-all-the-presidents-men.

[2] Joe Saltzman, “The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture: An Interview with Joe Saltzman (Part Two),” Henry Jenkins, June 29, 2010, http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2010/06/the_image_of_the_journalist_in.html.

[3] Charlie Savage, “Assange Indicted Under Espionage Act, Raising First Amendment Issues,” The New York Times, May 23, 2019, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/us/politics/assange-indictment.html.

[4] Steven Strasser, “Registering Reporters: How Licensing of Journalists Threatens Independent News Media” (Center for International Media Assistance, November 23, 2010).

[5] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale Agrarian Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[6] Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Atlantic Books, 2003).

[7] “The Elements of Journalism,” American Press Institute (blog), accessed January 20, 2020, https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/.

[8] Steven Friedman, “Speaking Power’s Truth: South African Media in the Service of the Suburbs,” in Media and Citizenship, ed. Anthea Garman and Anthea Wasserman (HSRC Press, 2016), 56.

[9] Carlin Romano, “We Need ‘Philosophy of Journalism,’” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 15, 2009, https://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Need-Philosophy-of/49119.