A lot of people – especially those in the major media who seem to feel threatened – are asking the question “are bloggers journalists?”, as if being a journalist is a holy status to be aspired to by only a select few. To answer that question the first step is to define exactly what a journalist is and then figure out whether bloggers meet the basic criteria of journalism.
In the most basic sense, a Journalist is someone who writes for a ‘Journal’ – which in modern terms is generally assumed to be a periodical newspaper or magazine. However, in the early days of journalism the definition of what was a ‘journal’ was extraordinarily broad – basically any written medium which described and discussed events or were relevant to the public, from books of topical wit and wisdom which were regularly updated like Poor Richard’s Almanack to broadsheets of news published on a single page and pasted on walls, to the enormously popular travelogues of the early 1800s like Boswell’s journal of his year in London, or of his trips to Corsica and the Hebrides (written with Johnson), to things which we might recognize as at least similar in format to the newspapers we read today. In content those newspapers were very different from what we’re used to. They were full of polemic, often had specific party allegiances or political agendas which they were very open about, and were quite merciless in their treatment of those they disliked or disagreed with. This was true from the beginnings of periodical publishing in the late Colonial period to the time of William Randolph Hearst in the early 20th century. Hearst is remembered for practicing ‘yellow journalism’ and for his famous instructions to Frederick Remington to go to Cuba and make up pictures of war crimes so he could publish them to stir the country up in favor of war against Spain – “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”. Todays idea of ‘journalistic standards’ are a very recent invention, something which seems to have caught on mostly in the 20th century, largely as a reaction against Hearst’s style of journalism. Before that muckraking of one sort or another was the standard and newspapers served the agenda of their publishers and weren’t above making up news.
The idea of ‘The Fourth Estate’ was coined by Edmund Burke for the role of journalists in revolutionary France where they had way too much political influence and worked very hard to raise their rabble-rousing to the level of holy political mission, attempting to embue their work with a dignity which it generally didn’t deserve at the time or for long after – the Marquis de Sade was a noted pornographic journalist of the period. Most people of that era didn’t take journalists very seriously, but during the French Revolution a lot of people took themselves too seriously, journalists among them. This self-righteous and idealistic perspective that journalists were one of the pillars of free society and had an obligation to serve the truth, eventually spread beyond France, and infected America by the end of the 19th century.
There’s no question that journalism is important. Someone has to compile and circulate and explain the news. As society became more complex fewer and fewer people had direct access to important events and newsmakers. Most people couldn’t just go and ask even our earliest presidents what national policy was, for example. Journalists took on the role of getting that access and asking the questions and finding out what was going on and then passing it on to the public – often filtered through their prejudices and assumptions. As time went buy Journalism became more and more focused and began to define itself more specifically as writing done for news periodicals. This ultimately came down to two roles, reporting the news – the role of the reporter – and interpreting or explaining the news – the role of the editorialist or news analyst. And those are basically the two forms of journalism we have today.
Reporters do the scut work of journalism. Both of my parents were reporters in the 1950s and my great grandfather was a reporter and newspaper publisher. But from the stories they’ve told me the work wasn’t glamorous even in its glory days. Reporters basically waited for something to happen, went to where it was happening, talked to people, dug up what they could and slapped it together very quickly into a summary of the events. That was at least real work, and the best of them could ferret out the truth in a pile of dubious information and come up with an insightful story. Today there are a lot more reporters, but most of them do considerably less original work. With todays news services most reporters just pick up their information off of a wire report, rewrite it or edit it and then publish it or broadcast it. More and more most reporters in newspapers and other media have become superfluous and they just publish the wire reports verbatim or read them over the airwaves. There are still some real reporters who actually do their own research and interview people, but they are a rare and priveleged group. They’ve become puffed up with their own importance and are now called ‘investigative journalists’ and they are the pampered primadonnas of the news media.
Editorialists are the other elite group in the media. They’re usually journalists who’ve gotten old enough that they’ve developed more opinions than good sense, or people with a good turn of phrase and something to say who’ve come from outside of journalism and attracted an audience for their writing. Editorialists have the much more interesting job of explaining and analyzing and giving their opinion on the news. The earnest journalism student doesn’t go to school to become an editorialist. They tend to end up in that job when they’ve demonstrated that they write well, but don’t have the temperament for just regurgitating wire reports in their own words.
One of the plagues of modern journalism is the emergence in recent years of ‘schools of journalism’ at most major universities. Historically journalism was a craft you went into if you were basically literate and couldn’t find a better job. You weren’t expected to have a particular educational background, you just needed to be able to take notes and write clearly and quickly. This diversity of backgrounds actually made for higher quality reporting, since good reporting comes down to good writing, and that was the only criteria for getting the job. Schools of journalism have as their objective turning out cookie-cutter reporters who know nothing about anything except the technical aspects of reporting the news. They know all the forms and technologies, but often don’t have the broader education or background to really understand much of what they’re reporting. From the perspective of the modern media publisher this is sort of desirable because they become unquestioning cogs in the news machine, processing information and reproducing it with minimal meddling.
As a result of all of these historical factors, modern journalism is a mess. Every editorialist wants to be H. L. Mencken or Oscar Wilde sacrificing effective communication on an altar to their own wit. The typical reporter has become a sort of news robot, cranking out column inches to fit extremely specific guidelines taught in journalism school and unaware that you can actually go out and find news and get a story and do something original as a journalist. Of course there are exceptions. Some news rooms pass down good skills from generation to generation or require a bit more of their journalists, but there are an awful lot of news outlets and the standards have gotten pretty low. If you’ve got a journalism degree these days, that’s all you need for your Junior Ace Reporter Club Card to bring the news to the public. While that may technically make you a journalist it doesn’t make you any good at the job.
Of course, today’s news media is a lot more than just newspapers and magazines, but all the other outlets take their cues and borrow their structure from those older forms of media – in fact they often just poach their stories. The only major difference in television news is the introduction of a performance element, so now we have reporters becoming successful not on writing or research skills, but on how they look, how they dress, what kind of accent they have and how well they can read a teleprompter. Not things which are exactly pertinent to the quality of their reporting. The plus of this is that it creates more jobs. Now the intelligent, troll-like traditional reporter can work behind the scenes and feed the news to the vacuous pretty boy (or girl) who sits in front of the camera.
And now the miracle of modern communications technology brings us bloggers. They run the gamut from totally unqualified to even express an opinion, to better qualified to explain and analyze the news than 99% of actual journalists. They include everything from 13 year old celebrity stalkers in training to actual disaffected journalists, not to mention the odd professor, foreign policy expert, and people who may not have official credentials, but have educated them so thoroughly on the topic they cover that they outdo the superanuated talking head experts onthe the 24 hour news networks on their chosen topics. The problem with bloggers is that anyone can be one and there are no credentials or qualifications, beyond having a computer and being able to type. Some are good, some are bad, some are brilliant and some are just evil.
Modern technology has given us such unfettered access to public exposure of our ideas that all the traditional filtering systems have broken down. This means that when it comes to figuring out which bloggers can be taken seriously and which ones are propagandists, fools and liars, the reader is on his own. There’s no editorial board or journalism faculty or news network producer overseeing the blogger. He says what he wants and uses the sources he likes, and it’s up to you to figure out whether he’s lying, telling the truth, or just plain crazy.
In many ways the environment created by the blogosphere is much like the early days of journalism, when there were no editorial boards, no schools of journalism, and in many cases the same person wrote, edited and published his work with no oversight at all – like Benjamin Franklin did with Poor Richard’s Almanack. Journalists wrote what they wanted, mixed straight news and opinion, and often slanted their reporting to fit a particular political agenda. The reader picked the journals he liked and read what he found enjoyable and believed what he wanted to believe. Journalists like Philip Frenau and John Fenno throve in this kind of environment in the post-Revolutionary period, because they had easy access to forums for their partisan political punditry and were able to use the available media easily to act as advocates for the candidates, parties and political philosophies of their choice. Readers knew which sources to turn to for the slant they liked on the news and everyone was happy. By modern standards this was nothing like ‘objective journalism’, and guess what, no one cared and no one suffered for it. No one bemoaned the lack of journalism degrees or journalistic standards. They got the news, heavily laced with opinion and commentary, and they were probably better informed on the issues than the average voter today.
The environment of the blogosphere is very much like the journalistic world of the 18th and 19th centuries. Every blogger is out there struggling to make an impact and find his niche, and they’re trying every slant they can to make their work stand out. Some are partisan, some are humorous, some are compilers of fact and some are spewers of invective – some even go on and on analyzing trivial topics into the ground. It’s all out there, and it’s up to the reader to determine what to read, what to take seriously and what to ignore. The concept of ‘Buyer Beware’ translates into ‘Reader Be Aware’, and that’s where the responsibility in this system rests. It assumes a relatively informed and perceptive readership, but I suggest that if you read enough blogs long enough you develop the filtering skills to tell the bullshit from the roses and end up better informed and more perceptive than before you went blogsurfing.
At base a journalist either provides the reader with new information, or gives them a new perspective or understanding of events. That simple definition encompasses the role of all of the different forms of news media in the world, and it can also be applied to bloggers. It also doesn’t include any of the deluded modern presumption of objectivity. If a blog provides you with new information from whatever source, then it’s effectively journalism. So those blogs that just compile news stories from other sources – which is what most daily newspapers do as well – are clearly journalism. If a blog provides commentary which gives you a particular perspective on events or explains those events in a useful – even if slanted – way, then that blog is basically a form of journalistic commentary like the editorial page of a newspaper or a news network talking head show.
The key thing to remember is that ‘journalism’ is not a religion, it’s not a sacred path to enlightenment, and having a job as a journalist doesn’t automatically make you smarter or wiser than anyone else. The doors of the schools of journalism don’t also function as the gates of heaven. ‘Accredited’ journalists have no special knowledge or more real qualifications than most bloggers do – they frequently have less as they wasted their time in college taking journalism classes instead of learning something useful. Until the term ‘accredited’ means they are licensed and bonded in some way, there’s no functional difference between them and anyone else. Anyone who writes their accounts of events, either straight up or interpreted and analyzed was a journalist through most of our history, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be just as true now, even if the opportunities to take on that role have expanded.
So yes, bloggers are journalists – but being a journalist is actually nothing all that special. It only becomes special when you do it particularly well, be that in The New York Times or on blogger.com.