Who (or what) is a professional journalist?

There has long been, and will most likely continue to be, a lively debate regarding the status of bloggers as journalists. From the New York Times to the very blogs themselves, in small newsrooms and even on the floor of Congress, the definition of journalist and journalism seem to be the roadblocks to finding a definitive answer.  Perhaps the problem comes from the profession itself. I say profession because, in its truest form, the practice of journalism tries very hard to be a profession. And in many ways, it almost gets there. But with the advent of blogs and the debate about bloggers’ identities unsettled, the struggle of journalism’s own identity may continue to move it further from professionalism.

We have been studying the “Paradox of Professionalism” with regard to journalism, and while there are several good arguments for journalism as a profession, there are just as many that will prove it is not. Social media, for all of its necessity and usefulness, does very little to assist journalists in this quest, and often hampers it the most.

As our text discusses, occupational sociologists have set criteria for defining a profession. While taken in the strictest context journalism can fall short on many, there are certainly ways these characteristics can be applied to the field, at least in the purest sense. As our text puts it, media practitioners are not “strictly speaking” professionals. Some of this can be attributed to the way our media has evolved with the advent of social media.

The first characteristic stated involves a “body of systematic theory, with esoteric but useful knowledge skills gained from education or training…culminating with certification based upon passing a professional examination or test.” No one can argue that any journalist has to pass a certification exam, but there was a point where journalists were certainly trained systematically and certainly obtained “useful knowledge skills” that set them apart from others. There was a time, not too long ago, when it was necessary to have formal training as a journalist, from a reputable school that granted a degree, to obtain a position with a newspaper or television station. In fact, that is still true in many cases. The advent of blogs and community Web sites makes that untrue of the practice as a whole. Anyone can call himself a journalist without any training at all. So even before it can begin on this point, a journalism including all bloggers fails here even more so than it does without them.

Another criterion listed is that the services provided be for the “public good” and that they be offered “impartially.” This impartial ideal is precisely what journalism strives for, as is well documented in many of the industry’s codes of ethics and employee manuals. While there may be situations where this is not the case, as there are in any other profession, the very basis of what a journalist does is grounded in impartiality. The “public good” has been a cornerstone of journalism from the very beginning of our country. John Stuart Mill’s arguments for freedom of expression encompass pursuing the highest public good possible while inflicting the least amount of harm. These arguments regarding freedom of expression find their way into many arguments surrounding freedom of the press, which is seen as a harbinger of that expression. In fact, the founding fathers recognized the public good of free expression, and the potential of a free press to serve such, so clearly that they ensured it for posterity within the Bill of Rights.

This is one area where blogs and other social media can land on either side of the fence. It is hard to imagine how Perez Hilton is contributing to the public good, or how extremist blogs are inflicting the least amount of harm. However, Mill’s arguments for free expression support these as well. After all, even wrong opinion help the public in the search for the right ones, and the search for truth is sometimes encouraged by falsity. On this particular point, all those who seek to disseminate information to the public through media could be considered on track toward professionalism.

The sociologists indicate that the professional should be the “authority in the relationship.” The list does not give a definition for authority, but typically an authority knows more about what they are talking about than the particular audience to whom they are speaking. The journalist, in the truest sense, has the authority. A trained journalist’s capacity for investigation, impartiality and access to information, when exercised responsibly can give the journalist authority over the general public. If a journalist lives up ethically to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and the training he receives, he can be just as much of an authority as a stockbroker or lawyer in those respective fields. After all, these professionals are only considered professionals because they do this also. The problem for this particular characteristic, when it comes to blogging and other forms of social media “journalism,” is that, unless you want to meet this ideal of professionalism, there is no compelling interest to assume this authority correctly.

Another criterion for professionals is a “set of enduring norms …generally reinforced by membership in a professional culture.” True, traditional journalism probably gets the closest to this. Journalistic norms of impartiality, telling the truth, minimizing harm, getting the whole story, respecting each other and the story, and many more have long been embraced by those who call themselves professional journalists. To be a journalist is to be part of a culture that holds these things near and dear. That is not to say there are not those who do not, even in the venerable old cathedrals of journalistic excellence – case in point, Jayson Blair – but the general school of thought is that anyone who wants to succeed in this business will do so within those norms. In fact, these are really the basis of the SPJ Code of Ethics. Where blogs and community Web sites fit into this is hard to say, since so many are not trained within the same culture, and the more these develop the greater the gap will become.

By the occupational sociologist’s definition of a professional, journalists fall short on some of the criteria, but can be close to others. While the industry may never reach all of them, and each of them must be met to be considered a professional, the ongoing debate over whether bloggers are journalists cannot do much to push journalism toward this ideal of professional, and in some of the ways mentioned above, may make the divide even wider. It may come to pass that the definition of a journalist changes as we continue to look at shield laws and what is really news. If so, journalism may need to address the question from a completely different perspective.

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