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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

What is it that journalists do? It can’t be reduced to just one thing

In the start of a regular column for Nieman Lab, Jonathan Stray argues that a too-narrow definition of the work of journalism limits the field’s potential.

There’s a craving in the air for a definitive statement on what journalism is, something to rally around as everything changes. But I want to do the opposite. I want to explode journalism, to break it apart into its atomic acts. I’m beginning to suspect that taking it apart is the only way we can put it all back together again.

In the endless debate about what the “future of journalism” holds, “journalism” doesn’t have a very clear meaning. We’re in the midst of hot arguments over who is a journalistwhether social media is journalismwhether data is journalism, whether cherished tenets like objectivity are necessary for journalism. As the print advertising model that funded the bulk of working journalists collapses and forces transformation, it’s pressing to know what is worth preserving, or building anew.

After decades where “journalism is what journalists do” was good enough, there is a sudden a bloom of definitions. Some claim that “original reporting” is the core, deliberately excluding curation, aggregation, and analysis. Others say “investigative reporting” is the thing that counts, while a recent FCC report uses the term “accountability journalism” liberally. These are all efforts to define some key journalistic act, some central thing we can rally around.

I don’t think I could tell you what the true core of journalism is. But I think I have a pretty good idea of what journalists actually do. It’s a lot of things, all of them valuable, none of them the exclusive province of the professional. Journalists go to the scene and write or narrate or shoot what is happening. They do months-long investigations and publish stories that hold power accountable. They ask pointed questions of authorities. They read public records and bring obscure but relevant facts to light. All of this is very traditional, very comfortable newswork.

But journalists do all sorts of other things too. They use their powerful communication channels to bring attention to issues that they didn’t, themselves, first report. They curate and filter the noise of the Internet. They assemble all of the relevant articles in one place. They explain complicated subjects. They liveblog. They retweet the revolution. And even in the age of the Internet, there is value to being nothing more than a reliable conduit for bits; just pointing a camera at the news — and keeping it live no matter what — is an important journalistic act.

There’s more. Journalists verify facts and set the record straight when politicians spin. (You’d think this would be uncontroversial among journalists, but it’s not.) They provide a place for public discussion, or moderate such a place. And even though magazine journalism can be of a very different kind, like Hunter S. Thompson writing for The Atlantic, we still call it journalism. Meanwhile, newspaper journalists write an enormous number of interpretive pieces, a much larger fraction than is normally appreciated. The stereotypical “what just happened” report has become less and less common throughout the last 100 years, and fully 40 percent of front page stories are now analytical or interpretive, according to an excellent piece of forthcoming research. And, of course, there are the data journalists to cope with the huge rise in the availability and value of data.

Can we really say which of these is the “true” journalism?

I think it depends hugely on the context. If some important aspect of the present has never been represented anywhere else, then yes, original reporting is the key. But maybe what the public needs is already in a document somewhere, and just posting a link to it on a widely viewed channel is all that is needed. At the other end of the spectrum, verifying the most basic, on-the-ground facts be can challenge enough. I saw the process that the AP went through to confirm Gadhafi’s death, and it was a tricky undertaking in the middle of a conflict zone. In other cases, the missing piece might not require any new reporting at all, just a brilliant summary that pulls together all the loose threads.

There are a lot of different roles to play in the digital public sphere. A journalist might step into any or all of these roles. So might anyone else, as we are gradually figuring out.

But this, this broad view of all of the various important things that a journalist might do, this is not how the profession sees itself. And it’s not how newsrooms are built. “I’ll do a story” is a marvelous hammer, but it often leads to enormous duplication of effort and doesn’t necessarily best serve the user. Meanwhile, all the boundaries are in flux. Sources can reach the audience directly, and what we used to call “technology” companies now do many of the things above. Couple this with the massive, beautiful surge of participatory media creation, and it’s no longer clear where to draw the lines.

But that’s okay. Even now, news organizations do a huge number of different things, a sort of package service. Tomorrow, that might be a different package. Each of the acts that make up journalism might best be done inside or outside the newsroom, by professionals or amateurs or partners or specialists. It all depends upon the economics of the ecosystem and, ultimately, the needs of the users. Journalism is many good things, but it’s going to be a different set of good things in each time, place, and circumstance.

Photo by Niclas used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Mu Lin

    Good points. Seems that all the debate about “future of journalism” are essentially about the future of the established, conventional news industry, not “journalism profession.”

  • Rich Gordon

    Thanks to Jonathan Stray for this important contribution to the ongoing discussion of what journalism should be in the digital age.  A lot of our challenges in adapting to the new world of digital/mobile/social/etc. stem from the fact that journalism cannot be easily defined — but it seems that everyone (inside and outside of the profession) has a very strong idea of what it is and isn’t.  Look up “journalism” in a dictionary or encyclopedia (I’ve done it) and you will find that all of the definitions are circular.  They refer either to what journalists (usually reporters) do, or to the distribution vehicles for journalistic content (newspapers, broadcast news shows, etc.).  

    Unfortunately, to the degree there is a consensus about the definition of “journalism” — among journalists or technologists — it seems to revolve around original reporting and “storytelling” [another problematic term, which Jonathan has written about before –   Even people like Eric Schmidt at Google — who professes to care deeply about the value of journalism and wants Google to improve it, rather than harm it — speaks mostly about the need for original reporting … not the entire ecosystem that ensures that journalism gets seen and has an impact on people’s lives.

    Jonathan’s approach of breaking down journalism into its component parts, and acknowledging that  each of them can be provided by both professionals and non-professionals, is helpful.  But I think it would also be productive — at least, for those of us who have to teach the next generation of journalists — if we could put those component parts into three overarching categories: 
          * Reporting/analysis. 
          * Storytelling/presentation.
          * Production/editing/management.

    Each of these, of course, can be done for content that is not — by anyone’s definition — journalism.  For instance, there are jobs doing all of these things in marketing departments of consumer products companies. 

    I would argue that what makes journalism journalism has to do not with the *means* but with the *ends*.  In a Twitter exchange with me last week on just this topic, Ryan Pitts (@ryanpitts:twitter )  used this language to define journalism: “gathering, organizing and distributing information that helps people in communities of place or interest make decisions.”   His “gathering, organizing and distributing” parallels the three categories I listed above.  It’s the part about “information that helps people in communities of place or interest make decisions” that, in my opinion, defines journalism.

  • Tom Stites

    What an interesting exploration of the activity once known as journalism.

    Most people seem to have formed private definitions, and whatever the believe journalism is they don’t like it very much.  

    I like Ryan Pitts’s definition — “gathering, organizing and distributing information that helps people in communities of place of interest make decisions” — because its foundation is the needs of people in community, not the characteristics of technologies or markets as some understand them.At the Banyan Project, which is pioneering a new business model for community-level Web journalism, we’ve for a couple of years used a similar definition: “reliable information people need to make their best life and citizenship decisions.”  In conversations with hundreds of people from all walks of life, this definition has almost always elicited a smile.

  • Maarten Corten

    Two remarks from Belgium:

    - I believe a concept like journalism has the same problem as the concept of music. When people try to define it, they’re not defining music, but they’re defining (what in their views is) good music. Therefore I think we need to distinguish the two debates: ‘What is journalism’ and only then we can discuss what good journalism is. I think therefore it is key to define journalism as minimalistic as possible, break it down to the core in terms of means and goals, apart from quality issues. Which isn’t going to be easy.

    - A first criterium, for me, could be something that is so self-evident that it seems to be overlooked time and again: the fact that journalism implies an audience, a one-to-many communication model. If I overheard (and verified, just to play it safe) a decision taken in a board meeting at my company and if I were to tell this to my co-worker, am I practicing journalism? And what if I were to spread an e-mail to a number of colleagues, could that be considered journalism? It’s a question, even as I’m typing it, that seems to be more difficult to answer than might seem at first glance.

  • Sharon Stevenson

    The core purpose of journalism: I’ll agree with Ryan Pitts’s more pointed definition that journalism is  “gathering, organizing and distributing
    information that helps people in communities of place of interest make
    decisions”.  But there’s an even sharper point no one has mentioned in this discussion. Our justly vaunted “Freedom of the Press,” I was taught at Mizzou’s J-school if memory serves, was granted so our democracy would have an *informed* electorate which could better exercise its franchise, the vote, its most important citizen “decision.” That, for me, is the core of our American journalism’s purpose and raison d’etre, and one hardly ever mentioned.

    Were owners and editors of news orgs to emphasize and keep this goal in mind, it would go a fer piece as a Southerner would put it, to generating more appreciation and support for ‘good’ journalism from the public, I would hope.

    As well, I would love to see a breakaway from the tired news writing formula. Up front (or at the end?), I would love to know why an article or presentation is so important that I spend/waste my time reading/watching it. Normal news writing so many times ‘hides’ the nut graph which allegedly would give me that info. I want it up front or at least made very obvious. This change would also make reporters/editors more sharply evaluate both content and style in presentation…hopefully.

  • cara mengobati demam berdarah

    Were owners and editors of news orgs to emphasize and keep this goal in mind, it would go a fer piece as a Southerner would put it, to generating more appreciation and support for ‘good’ journalism from the public, I would hope.