Free Speech and a Free Press: As Technology Changes How News Is Gathered and Delivered, Should Journalism Continue to Be Sharply Distinguished from Activism and Other Kinds of Free Speech?

By Simon, Joel | Nieman Reports, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Free Speech and a Free Press: As Technology Changes How News Is Gathered and Delivered, Should Journalism Continue to Be Sharply Distinguished from Activism and Other Kinds of Free Speech?


Simon, Joel, Nieman Reports


AT A MARCH 2013 MEETING in Doha, Qatar, in which press freedom activists gathered to develop a strategy for responding to the violence in Syria, a heated discussion broke out about what constitutes journalism in an environment in which professional reporters work alongside a new generation of online communicators who dub themselves "media activists." Using social media and public platforms like YouTube, these activists have provided firsthand accounts of the fighting, the toll, and daily life in a war-ravaged country but make no claim to objectivity. Some are fairly journalistic in their approach and others essentially propagandists for the rebel forces. A few are armed and participate in combat.

To give a few additional examples from other parts of the world, in China, a leading blogger, Zhou Shuguang, who uses the online moniker Zola (a nod to the French writer-journalist), has traveled around the country with a video camera documenting injustice but insists, "I don't know what journalism is. I just record what I witness." In Vietnam, a blogger named Nguyen Van Hai who took a similar approach was given a 12-year jail sentence. In Turkey, while mainstream media ignored the Gezi Park protesters, activists using Twitter and other social media became the essential source of independent news. Even New York police seeking to control access to the Occupy Wall Street protests struggled to differentiate between accredited journalists and sympathetic citizens who used smartphones to disseminate information to the public.

In an era in which technology has changed everything about the way news is gathered and delivered, is it possible to draw a line between journalism, activism, and other kinds of speech? And is it necessary to do so? The answer is extremely significant for several reasons. First, because it directly affects the way journalists themselves understand their role. Are the rights of journalists distinct from others who provide information and commentary? Is the ability of journalists to perform their role as media professionals dependent on preserving some sort of distinction? Second, because it goes to larger questions about the kind of global information environment that would best preserve and even expand the accountability, oversight, and transparency that have historically been the function of independent media.

The advent of blogs and online media raised new questions. As the volume, complexity, and speed of information increased, the process of defining journalism has become more and more unwieldy. The trend has accelerated in the last several years, with the explosion of social media and its increasing use to accomplish basic journalism: documenting events and disseminating information to the public.

Some traditional journalists are deeply uncomfortable with the blurring of lines, which they feel undermines the integrity of the profession while also making coverage of conflict more dangerous. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel told the U.N. Security Council during its July 2013 briefing on journalist security, "Protecting journalists these days is hard, perhaps harder than ever, because one has to tackle the question of who is a journalist and who is an activist in a way that never existed before."

Engel lamented the ways in which the advent of social media has eviscerated the special status that international correspondents once enjoyed, eliminating distinctions between professional journalists, activists, and "rebels with cameras" and "state broadcasters" who are "fundamentally different from journalists." "If one cannot or will not write an article that goes against one's cause, then one is not a journalist and does not deserve to be treated like one," Engel explained. He proposed that the diplomats on the Security Council make a distinction between the broad defense of freedom of expression and the defense of "dedicated and trained professionals who take risks to deliver the kind of information council members need to make their decisions. …

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