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NPPA Multimedia Immersions: Who is a Journalist?


(Note: This will be similar for all the posts concerning the NPPA Multimedia Immersion session so skip if you’ve read before.)

I absolutely love that the National Press Photographer’s Association is streaming some of their Multimedia Immersion sessions live.

Tuesday’s session was on Ethics and the Law for multimedia. The panelists included Mickey Ostericher – NPPA Counsel, Roy Gutterman – Newhouse professor and Barbara Fought – Newhouse professor.

Much of the talk focused around shield laws (and the burning question of our time — namely, who is a journalist) and copyright laws. While I want to discuss a little bit about one of those topics here, so much was covered in the nearly two-hour session that this is something I will go back to in the future.

Who is a Journalist?


Photo courtesy of Maurits Burgers who is showing off his press pass.

Jacob Weisburg blogged at Slate back in 2005 about how we’re all journalists now. The crux of his argument was this:

But those who advocate a special legal privilege for journalists must accept that anyone who thinks he’s a journalist is a journalist, and figure out how to protect the activity rather than a defined group of people. Properly understood, journalism has never been simply a trade or a profession. In a democracy like ours, it’s a basic right.

Obviously, I disagree. There are plenty of bloggers and freelancers that should be considered journalists, but we need to develop a standard to separate journalists from everyone else. I think that what separates everyday folks who write and journalists is oversight, credibility and training.

Let’s talk about oversight first. For a journalist, this oversight usually comes in the form of a boss, a corporation or someone else to be accountable to. If a writer on a personal blog gets information wrong, there’s no one to ensure there’s a correction. Who’s there to be responsible to if the writer writes something that’s potentially libelous? I know some writers will tell me that they’re responsible to themselves and their audiences, but I think there’s a difference between working for yourself and having an entire organization to represent and be responsible to.

Next is credibility. The journalist’s main mission is credibility. Independent writers may not see that as a basis of their audience. Writers may be popular for their way of handling prose, their ability to incite emotion or some other talent. I’m not saying all writers lack credibility. But credibility should be the main mission of every journalist and there must be a mechanism to make corrections and factcheck previous work.

Training is probably the most important aspect of what makes separates a journalist from a person who writes. While this training doesn’t have to occur at journalism school or even at a major publication, journalists have been educated in the ethical, legal and social responsibilities that journalists have. These things can be learned piecemeal but an basic education in the rights and responsibilities of journalists is important in adequately informing the public and maintaining the role of a government watchdog.

Why Does it Matter?

But all this talk is purely academic unless we can identify the real consequences of establishing who is a journalist. Obviously, I think my friend Chuck Welch over at Lakeland Local and Metro I-4 (amongst other sites) is a journalist and I want him to be protected under shield laws. We’ve talked a little about what makes a journalist and I’m sure he’d have some disagreements with my definitions above.

However, as Mickey Ostericher said in the NPPA Multimedia Immersion session Tuesday,

If everyone’s a journalist, then no one’s a journalist. And it really seems that if the way that they defined the law is that if everyone is defined as a journalist than it will go up to the Supreme Court and will be struck down.

Shield laws are important to how journalists work. For instance, most shield laws protect journalists against going to jail for not giving up confidential sources and prevent them from having to give up photography or video recording equipment, footage or outtakes.

We need to protect these basic laws that allow journalists to continue to work. Barbara Fought, in the Multimedia Immersion session yesterday, said that we don’t need credentials or a badge of honor to be a journalist and in one way that’s good, because it allows anyone to help spread the news but in another way, it blurs the lines between what our responsibilities are.

I think the way to fix this is that there needs to be some sort of professional certification or association that a journalist needs to have or belong to in order to be considered a legally protected journalist. In the same way that doctors must be board certified or that lawyers must have a license to practice their craft, why is it out of the realm of possibility to require some minimum amount of training and oversight? I’d love to hear your opinions (I know there’s many arguments against my proposal).

Today’s session will be about Freelancing and Funding of Multimedia Stories and can be viewed at 1 p.m. EST at NPPA’s LiveStream site.

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