What Is Journalism?
Who Is a Journalist?
As I was narrowing down the topics for this book, “What is journalism?” received a very early “can’t cut” designation. The Journal of Mass Media Ethics was hosting its colloquium, “Who is a journalist?”;1 debate was raging over whether to establish a Federal Shield Law, with much of the disagreement centering on to whom it would apply; and some of the most interesting commentary was coming from such online sources as Slate and Salon. So of course we had to address the topic, and it became quickly apparent that it would be one of the more vexing ones of the book.
But take a look at journalism ethics books from before 1990 or so. You’ll notice they don’t much worry about the problem of “what” journalism was: it was what outlets like the New York Times and CBS News did, and journalists were the people who worked at those places. The books did worry quite a bit, just as we do, about the degradation of real news, about news increasingly becoming mere entertainment or salacious gossip. The concern, though, was more that news was acting like Entertainment Tonight or the National Enquirer than that those sources were themselves considered news outlets.
Then came an explosion of alternative sources, ranging from the Internet to cable political talk shows to talk radio. Maybe the first person to really challenge the standard view was Matt Drudge, whose online “Report” broke the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story.2 We can certainly debate whether the affair was an impeachable offense, but, given contemporary social mores and journalistic culture, it was unquestionably a newsworthy story.3 So did that make Drudge a reporter? The vast majority of his reports were, and are, little more than unsubstantiated political rumor or news aggregated from traditional