Who’s a Journalist These Days?

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By: Mark A. Phillips

Who is a journalist? It depends on who you ask, but if you start pointing fingers accusing someone of not being a journalist, you may be suffering from a very common affliction.

Columnist Debra J. Saunders believes someone who doesn’t work for a news organization or doesn’t answer to editors isn’t a journalist. In her Feb. 27 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Saunders said, “a camera and a Web site do not a journalist make” in reference to Josh Wolf, a self-described blogger and activist who videotaped a violent protest in San Francisco.

A portion of the videotape was sold to a television station. Wolf, 24, has spent more than six months in jail for refusing to hand over the full-length tape. Saunders’ beef is that news agencies are describing Wolf as a “journalist” and that Wolf simply doesn’t fit the bill. I’m not actually here to argue the merits of the Wolf case, but to examine the feeling by many journalists that they alone get to decide who is and who isn’t a journalist.

My suggestion for Saunders and others who believe they know who “real journalists” are: Get over it.

People other than traditional journalists can indeed do the work of the press. Sure, Wolf does not work for a news agency. He doesn’t carry a press pass. The reality is that defining a journalist by the very narrow scope Saunders chooses to use is a symptom of the greater illness that plagues many, what I call “traditional” journalists. It’s called Big Ego.

Big Ego comes in many forms, but the most common symptom is the belief that journalists are really important people. Journalists with this disease often point at bloggers and other people without press passes and accuse them of not being “real journalists”. But bloggers who provide analysis about newsworthy events are journalists.

I believe Big Ego and being territorial lead traditional journalists to believe anyone else doing work like their own must be an imposter. It’s a matter of self-preservation: Traditional journalists feel threatened that someone ? especially without training but the right tools, such as a cell phone ? is able to perform a duty eerily similar to their own.

It’s why news organizations go to great lengths to make a clear distinction between what they do and what other people do.

The term “citizen journalist?” It means: “they’re doing stuff like us, but they’re not real.”

“Student journalist?” Translation: “They’re doing work much like they’ll do when they’re all grown up, but they’re not ‘real’ journalists.”

Why would traditional journalists want to cure themselves of this Big Ego problem? Simple. They’ll be better journalists. They’ll be able to better interact with and understand “the little people” (i.e. readers, listeners, and viewers.) Getting rid of Big Ego will help bridge the divide between traditional news organizations and the public.

Why, after all, do you think avenues like blogs and alternative news sites on the Web have flourished? Because people don’t think their voice is being heard through the traditional media.

Many traditional journalists probably think Matt Drudge is an imposter. Through his Drudge Report, Drudge links to stories around the Web and posts some original reporting on his site.

His site receives a staggering amount of Web traffic — more than 14 million unique visitors on most days, and nearly 4.3 billion in the past year. The reason? People depend on his site as a source of news and information.

I’d say that means he’s a journalist. Most news organizations would kill for even a sliver of his traffic. But he doesn’t work for a news agency. He doesn’t have an editor he reports to. He has no press pass that I’m aware of.

There are some new rules in the 21st century and abiding by them will not only help traditional journalists do their jobs better, but perhaps make them think in new ways and hopefully, keep the dreaded Big Ego disease at bay:

— Bloggers, especially those who comment on newsworthy and current affairs, are journalists. It’s a legitimate form of journalism. That’s why newspapers across the country have adopted blogs on their own sites. Many newspaper utilize blogs as a way to update readers on news throughout the day, before updated stories appear in print.

— You no longer need a “press pass” to be a journalist.

— Someone with a camera phone in the right place at the right time who is witness to an incredible event can do the work of a journalist. But it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s something news organizations must continue to tap into.

— Traditional journalists don’t get to decide who’s a “real journalist” anymore.

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