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The Big Question: Who is a journalist?
The decision to tackle this topic was an afterthought. It was borne out of the constant controversies in the media about who a journalist is. Indeed, those who wield power are quick to apportion accusations about charlatans invading the profession whenever they find a publication distasteful or whenever reporters goof. To answer this question is to undertake an overarching search of the field to provide meaningful signposts and leads to unraveling the conundrum.
The question: who is a journalist? Is still unsettled waters; it is evolving in tandem with the profession of journalism. . Black points out that it is a pragmatic one with serious ethical, legal, and craft ramifications. In his estimation, the question is disarmingly simplistic, and if we are not cautious, simplistic answers will emerge, but they will not sufficiently deal with some of the emergent enigmatic concerns that have bedeviled the practice of journalism in recent times.
While history, ethics, law, technological advances, and performative roles of the individual interactively define who a journalist is, there seem to be some level of congruency among observers, journalists, and researchers that suggest that performative role takes precedence over all the other elements identified in this paragraph. Therefore the best characterization of “journalist” is rooted in the performative role and guided by the ethical: to be a journalist is to engage in particular activities and perform them ethically.
I would use two distinguished individuals to illustrate some of the traditional notions and then proceed to engage some of the emergent issues.
Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential journalists the world has ever known, defied the traditional definition of a journalist from the professional training angle. Lippmann studied philosophy and languages, precisely French and German, at Harvard and earned his degree in three years, graduating as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society.
Lippmann left Harvard in June 1910 and took a job with the Boston Common for a short time. His break in Journalism came when the famous Muckraker Lincoln Steffens, then a member of the editorial board of Everybody’s Magazine, came to Cambridge in search of “the ablest mind that could express itself in writing.” “Money” Lippmann revealed, “does not happen to be an important consideration for me at the present time. Opportunity to work and to learn is the thing I am looking for.” With this assertion he joined Steffens as a “leg-man” and later sub-editor. Steffens had this to say about him to attest to his acumen, “keen, quite, industrious, he understood the meaning of all that he learned; and asked the men he met for more than I asked of him for. He searched them, I know because he searched me, too, for my ideas and theories.”
He became associated with the New Republic, established in November 1914 to respond to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Campaign.” He was seen as a philosopher and intellectual, important dispositions discernible in his columns.
Even without personally receiving academic training in journalism, he suggested, it might be worthwhile endowing large numbers of journalism schools and requiring reporters to obtain diplomas from them. Lippmann immediately recoiled from the statement, perhaps because he realized that his Harvard education would disqualify him, since he did not train in journalism. But this proposal received endorsement. The college graduate, though his degree need not be in journalism, was the rule rather than the exception in the 1960s and still the norm in some countries in order to belong to the professional body of journalist.
Another consideration might be the fact that after long years of immersion in the practice of journalism without the professional training, Lippmann must have recognized his own shortcomings several years after educating himself on the job under the tutelage of some of the ablest hands he worked with. To this end, Lippmann could look back, in honesty, and to propose professional training or at least college education for the professional in journalism.
Walter Lippmann has been referred to as the dean of American newspaper columnists. At the peak of his professional career, within the United Sates alone, his syndicated columns of opinion appeared in over 150 papers. His columns were printed in nearly fifty other nations, including Canada, England, France, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Sweden, India, Australia, and New Zealand. It is estimated that nearly 40 million Americans read Lippmann on daily basis and 10 million foreigners made themselves familiar with his columns. “This is quite a sphere of influence,” John Mason Brown concluded. One can imagine what his influence would have been today with the Internet.
Bringing the point home to Ghana, Komla Dumor, then an undergraduate at the University of Ghana with concentrations in Sociology and Psychology, was recruited as a traffic reporter by the private media, Joy FM, , as a result of the closure of the university due to a stalemate between the University authorities and government on emoluments for lecturers. As the traffic newsman on the back of a scooter, he reported where there were gridlocks within the city of Accra to divert drivers to other routes. On his profile page, he wrote, “I gave traffic news so well that the management of Joy FM decided to give me the opportunity to do regular programs.”
Within years, he was voted journalist of the year by the Ghana Journalists Association in 2003. This was a defining moment for the age-old thesis of “who a journalist” is to be tested and contested. Not surprising, many of the antagonists to the award were members of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA). To them, the bottom line was that the gentleman did not receive any formal training as a journalist and could not be qualified as one let alone receiving an award as the best the country could produce.
But he went on, in his illustrious career, to host the Network Africa program and to present the World Today, both very popular programs of the BBC with a global audience. With the power of print, Lippmann reached the searching minds of millions around the globe, while with the influence of the transmission box, Dumor gave the world what is unfolding on the other side of the mountain.
In both cases, the individuals did not receive training as journalists, but they became star performers in the field they became associated with per chance. This implies that formal training in journalism may not be the only route to the practice of journalism. While some think it is only those working in traditional media who count as journalists, others argue that those with a college degree and/or substantial professional experience qualify. Others also suggest that it depends not on the medium or employment status but rather on the intent of the individual—that is, whether or not they are collecting information with the purpose of disseminating it to the public, and there seem to be some general agreement on the latter.
Obviously, Lippmann and Dumor meet the basic educational test or necessity – a college degree. While traditional media organizations confer status on the individuals as journalists, traditional media also has organizational structure and occupational culture which requires journalists to follow certain standardized templates in their work. For that matter, those without training in journalism are drafted and groomed for the organizational purpose. The implication is that their own education – in this case, college education - provides them with the basics to be able to transfer knowledge from their various fields of training in understanding the values that undergird the profession. To this end, while professional training may not be a prerequisite, some level of education, especially college education is important to function in the roles adopted by the two individuals. With these examples cited, would we still argue that individuals without the educational background in journalism cannot be considered as one?
Obviously, without educational training in journalism, Lippmann shepherded the profession, coming up with such concepts as stereotypes and authoring many books that talk about the press. And many rightly perceive him as the father of modern journalism.
It is easy to maintain that the question is passé if we think today’s 24/7, electronic, hyper information/entertainment/persuasion world has so obliterated the lines between media functions that the death of journalism has become inevitable. On the other hand, some dogmatists find it compelling to draw hard and fast lines in the territorial sands, defining journalism in ways that include only a select few highly moral professionals while de-pressing or excommunicating everyone else. Meanwhile, it is equally problematic to broaden the definition of journalism such that everyone qualifies (“we’re all journalists now”), Singer argues.
There is even more urgency now for acceptable designation for writers and reporters as the Internet spreads, “handing down power” to all manner of people who can write and publish their own work wherever the network extends. The power to publish own story, report, and publish features have been handed “down” to the individual without either the formal training in journalism or college degree to disseminate information to the public, defying the gatekeeping role of the press. This upsets some experienced journalists, but should not be cause for any legal concern. After all, journalists are not required to carry a license as required of drivers and other professionals. Freedom of expression is supposed to protect free expression for all citizens and not only journalists.
The blogger may be likened to the lonely pamphleteer, anonymous or otherwise, who may choose to post his writing on the walls at the town square. Just as the town square’s lonely pamphleteer does not come under the aegis of being christened a journalist, so the lonely blogger may not assume the title of a journalist, but enjoys the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. The liberty of the press is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. The message from a man with a single pamphlet has every right just like the newspaper from a powerful news organization. This may raise further questions of bloggers and writers who gather and disseminate information or news, in some cases, even with more accuracy or precision in specific or specialized areas than the journalist or media houses. Would they still be clothed as lonely bloggers basking in their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression or they become journalists by the amount of news or writings they churn out?
Others resist answering the question at all, arguing that journalists shouldn’t be defined by any single standard or narrow set of standards. Journalism is a craft, they say, that can be practiced by many people regardless of medium, employment status or intent. Ultimately, they contend, it is the work that matters—let the readers and viewers decide who is or isn’t a journalist. This again takes us back to the journalistic processes.
Despite this important argument, legal matters—for example, state-mandated press protections and administrative rules such as those concerning access to government press galleries or sports and entertainment venues—often call for some sort of definition to be established and enforced. As one might expect, the proliferation of online news services makes the access issue difficult to resolve—though the trend is moving in favor of granting press passes to Web sites that produce a substantial amount of original news reporting.
The Huffington Post may be a good example to illustrate this point. When the site Ariannaonline.com, created by Arianna Huffington in the early days of the Internet went live, it was as eccentric as it defied traditional journalism. Her Resignation.com, where she calls for the resignation of Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monika Lewinsky affair may even be more eccentric. Even as recently as May 2005, when the site was re-launched, many wrote it off, predicting it would become a footnote in the annals of online news. The contentious point is that even though Arianna meets the basic test requirement with a college degree from Cambridge and a stint at the BBC and being a columnist, her blog did not escape the disdain accorded eccentric views in blogosphere, as it provided a conduit for “unfavored speech,” speech that my not go past the lens of editors in the traditional media.
Recently, the site launched local versions across the United States – Huffpost Chicago, HuffPost New York, HuffPost Los Angeles, Huffpost Denver – with over one million comments made on its site each month and with tens of millions of visitors to its site each month. On February 7, 2011, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for US$315 million making Arianna Huffington editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group.
The obvious contrast is that while the early beginnings of the Huffington Post might not have elicited the reverence accorded traditional media houses like the New York Times and the Washington Post, with the attendant designation for their reporters as journalists – who may be trained educationally or on the job, as in the case of Dumor and Lippmanna – this might have eluded the Huffington Post from its early beginning. But today, that status has been achieved by the Huffington Post with all the reverence restored.
Readers must take note of the departure. There has been a transition from the lonely pamphleteer at the town square, whereby Adriannaonline.com and Resignation.com were just seen as aberrations in the profession of journalism. However, with the expansion came the organizational structures and culture, which are embedded in the ethics of the profession of journalism, conferring status and designation. These ethical standards are: truth telling, independence, courageous, proportionality, accuracy, fairness, objectivity, impartiality, comprehensiveness, transparency, accountability, stewardship, and humanness.
From the foregoing, it is obvious that educational training and ethics, the latter which translates into the news gathering process, form important bedrocks which determine how the public might perceive a reporter –whether as a blogger or reporter for a well-established news organization. So to the extent that a blogger observes the ethics of the profession, hold himself or herself accountable as well as the public, it may pass the ethical litmus test, but that does not automatically pass the test of the law which would also be examined in great detail.
Ethics and law share a concern with advancing a socially shared vision of the public good, but they go about achieving that good differently. Ethics focuses on the voluntary nature of our behavior, and provides categories, principles, and exemplars by which our behavior can be judged. Ethics is “obedience to the unenforceable.” Law on the other hand, deals with the arena of coerced compliance –“obedience to the enforceable”—with respect to the minimum maintenance of social satiability… the bottom line, below which we should not fall, lest we be punished. Their respective roles are thus distinct.
The legal argument about who is a journalist is not insignificant, for it determines who deserves special privileges. If only a select few individuals are granted special access to sources or events, or have statutory rights to protect their sources, or have constitutional protection from claims of libel or privacy invasion, then “journalist” delineates a very special class of professionals. However, if everyone is a journalist, the privileges would seem to apply universally and therefore could hardly be called “privileges.”
Jane Kirtley, a media law and ethics professor at the University of Minnesota, believes that most courts dealing with shield laws would not consider amateur Web writers to be journalists even if their original intent met the appeals court’s standard. “If anybody who has a computer and a modem says, ‘I ‘m a journalist,’ the courts aren’t going to buy it.” Ronald Goldfarb, an author and attorney, sounds a similar note when he suggests that intent alone should not determine who is or isn’t a journalist. Instead, he argues that a journalist is somebody who has been judged by the market place by being published in a legitimate medium. To Goldfarb, the Web, for most part, isn’t “legitimate” because articles can be placed online without any scrutiny, which, he believes, is a necessary part of the publication process.
However, in 1998 in the United States, a federal circuit court deciding a case that didn’t specifically involve the Internet appeared to create an opening for online writers to invoke journalistic privilege. Drawing heavily on a prominent 1987 case, the judges first supported the argument that the First Amendment, equivalent to free speech in Ghana, was designed to protect the journalistic process rather than individual journalists or the press as an institution. Then they defined the key elements that make up the process: “we hold that individuals are journalists when engaged in investigative reporting, gathering news, and have the intent at the beginning of the newsgathering process to disseminate this information to the public.”
In this case, obviously, it may be argued that even the faceless individual, in the pursuit of his or her liberties regarding expression may raise his or her concerns by informing the public by posting his or her lonely pamphlet on a tree or on a wall at the town square, just as the metropolitan writer would reach the globe with the aid of the internet. There are therefore no charlatans. All these sources have their own agendas, which must be allowed to thrive in the court of public opinion. After all, free speech and free press is not meant to protect the Daily Graphic’s and Ghana News Agency’s news templates or what may pass as favored speech. The underlying principle is to protect unfavored speech – the Buggle, the Ghanaian Enquirer, Daily Guide and very bold individuals without a voice in the traditional media - for what painful truth might be imbedded in their writings.
The thorny issue, however, is whether citizen journalism, as it were, has equal privileges as those shielded privileges enjoyed by journalists. If a reporter invokes privileges accorded journalist, for example, protecting source of information, the courts may have to decide whether or not that reporter qualifies as a journalist. Not surprisingly, the explosion in the number of Web sites providing news adds a new wrinkle. To make matters even more complicated, the courts are very reluctant to get into the business of deciding who counts as a journalist. To many judges, at least in the United States, doing this would be tantamount to the licensing of journalists, which would then raise the specter of government press restrictions and censorship. Indeed, as the supreme court of the US wrote in 1972, defining “categories of journalists who qualify for certain privileges is “a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer… just as much as of the large, metropolitan publisher.”
Today the majority of individuals who call themselves journalists are not full-time employees of traditional news media; they work (sometimes as freelancers, sometimes without pay) as reporters, videographers, and commentators on weblogs. There were more than 50 million blogs by 2006, with 175,000 appearing daily. It is estimated that blogosphere is doubling about once in every six and half months. With the Internet now the main source of news for people globally and cable outlets on the rise, citizen participation in the public sphere is no doubt on the rise. The implication is that this question of who a journalist would not simply go away.
But for now, with a caveat that new media is still fledging out, let us take refuge in the qualifiers “participatory journalism,” “citizen journalist” and so on to make that distinction, especially in cases where bloggers do not have any professional or institutional umbrellas and cannot claim any understanding of the ethical processes that define their work. But this does not in any way limit their freedom of expression when it comes to the law. The application of the law, in cases where bloggers evoke journalistic privileges – protection of sources and so on – there is no doubt the law must take cognizance of the transitions identified in the transformation of the Huffington Post, but with preponderance to press liberty.
The online conversation is a civic model of populist democracy, creating unprecedented levels of interaction between citizens and journalists – from blogs to forums. “Journalism = Community =democracy. Daniel Glover, a writer for the Beltway Blogroll likens bloggers to government’s Inspector General (IG) for their independent watchdog roles of both government and journalism. “Just as the IGS are not part of the agencies they oversee, bloggers are neither part of government nor journalism, but they keep a wary and watchful eye on both,” Glover says. “And in so doing they provide a valuable check against arrogance, inadequacies and abuse of all four estates.”
Educational training in journalism cannot be the only route to acquiring the designation as a journalist. Though the emblem is the same, there are many routes to it. Citizen journalism, however, must be qualified in its right designation when this issue comes up for contest. It is only by doing that that we would know who fathoms the ethics of the profession and sidestep its application and who is completely oblivious of the tenets of the profession.
Keep tuned in…
The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, migration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.
By: Prosper Yao Tsikata