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May 30, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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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.

POSTED     May 30, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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