Am I a journalist?

As you can see at the top of my website, I describe myself as a journalist. However, if you spend any time reading my blog or my social media posts, you’ll quickly see why, when asked, I also describe myself as a liberal.

If you’re of a particular mindset about journalism, you might find that a tough pill to swallow. I understand, because it is for me, too. I grew up in the 70s and 80s at the tail end of an era in journalism when “objectivity” was considered absolutely paramount. I even grew up in the household of a traditional newspaperman who taught classes on journalism ethics. Journalists were not supposed to express an opinion. They certainly were never to be politically active, either in partisan politics or with an issue advocacy group. That said, even in those stricter days, there were a few exceptions. Sometimes journalists could write “analysis” pieces, in which they tried to put facts and events into more context, and that required applying judgment as to what was relevant and irrelevant to best understand a given situation. Also, when someone was labeled a columnist, he or she could express opinions more readily. However, there was still an expectation that facts and reasons had to be provided, and political activity remained off the table.

This traditionalist mindset has taken a beating in the last roughly three decades. Rightly so, because it was mostly a fairy tale. Journalists were never robots, without emotional attachments to a sense of what was and wasn’t important. They couldn’t help but have a sense of what was right or wrong for themselves, their families, their communities, their country, and the world. For example, at a most basic level, whatever perspective they had came out in story choice. Some events and issues were deemed worthy of attention and time, and others were not.

So, if this traditional sense of journalism was largely a fiction, is objectivity dead? Is there anything that can be reasonably called journalism?

The answers are no and yes, and explaining those answers will in turn explain why, despite self-identifying as a liberal, I feel like I can still describe myself as a journalist.

It comes down to the concept of transparency and the craft of journalism.

Transparency

Put simply in a 2009 post by David Weinberger that I found thanks to Jay Rosen:

Transparency is the new objectivity.

The idea is that, since no one can ever be completely free of interests and perspectives, it’s best just to be upfront about what they are. Rosen digs further into this definition of objectivity here.

As he stresses, being clear about where you’re coming from “is the biggest shift, and the hardest for traditionalists to accept.” As a recovering traditionalist, I think he’s probably right there. Transparency is a powerful idea. Rather than going to all sorts of personal and creative lengths to disguise one’s opinions, just be open and free with what they are. In fact, being forthcoming and truthful sounds an awful lot like, wait for it, what journalists expect of everyone else.

The craft of journalism

While the concept of transparency does a lot of the heavy lifting, it doesn’t get you all the way to an understanding of what it takes to be a journalist. For the rest, I think you have to turn back to some very old-fashioned notions. Labeling yourself a journalist means that you are willing to make commitments to a particular kind of craft.

First, journalists must always retain healthy skepticism. They must always challenge facts and assumptions. They must maintain a critical distance – or put another way, be willing to call bullshit.

Second, journalists must be fair-minded. Perfect balance in any story is not always possible – and frankly, not always desirable, as examinations of the coverage of global warming have shown. Even so, journalists have to be careful not simply to dismiss perspectives that don’t align with their worldview. (Of course, there are limits.)

Third, journalists must stick to the traditional notion of finding and verifying facts and information, even if they also provide context that interprets those facts. The famous quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes to mind:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

By the way, I would also extend this idea to say that journalists must commit to being secular, in the sense that we can only consider facts as they exist in the natural world. People hold all sorts of beliefs about supernatural reality, but what’s important is how they have an impact on the world we share.

All of this, by the way, might sound like a version of the scientific endeavor, and yes, it’s pretty close. As Carrie Brown-Smith puts it here: “The scientific method on a tighter deadline.”

Brown-Smith has more to say on the idea of transparency in her post, so go read it. But she also highlights the elements of journalistic craft I’m talking about here. In fact, she refers to the famous book (in journalism education circles, anyway) of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “The Elements of Journalism” (naturally), in which they say that the traditionalist notion of objectivity, that I discussed at the top, was a distortion of the original way the term was applied:

In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art…. Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right….When the concept (of objectivity) originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary…. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work…. In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel mention, it is this commitment to a craft of skepticism, being fair-minded, and checking and double-checking facts that makes journalists so maddening to the politicians, activists, press officers, and propagandists of the world.

Advocacy journalism

So where does this leave me in answering my question, am I a journalist? I say yes, because of the commitments to transparency and craft that I’ve laid out above. And as part of following through transparency, I’ve written an entire separate post with what I think you need to know. In there, you’ll find the issues and topics that I support and am willing to advocate for. And that leads me to my final thoughts. When you combine a sense of purpose and journalistic transparency and journalistic craft, you get a particular kind of journalism called advocacy journalism.

Roughly eighteen years ago, Sue Careless gave an address that spelled out clear boundaries for a journalist who wants to also advocate for change in the world, drawing the line between journalism and activism. Read the full address, but to wrap up here are some highlights. (The bullet points are mine.)

Rules for Advocacy Journalism:

  • No matter how dear a cause is to journalist’s heart, there are lines which should never be crossed by a professional journalist.
  • Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.
  • A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist.
  • You don’t fabricate or falsify.
  • There must be a general fairness and thoroughness.
  • Verify your facts and quotes.
  • Use multiple sources and try to cite neutral sources for statistics.
  • You use your eyes and ears when you are news gathering. If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.
  • A good journalist must play devil’s advocate. You must argue against your own convictions.
  • You may believe something in theory or in principle, but how does it play out in practice?
  • Refer to (your opponent’s) best arguments, not his worst, quote him directly, accurately, at length and in context.
  • Even when a juicy story or outrageous statement emerges from your opponents, you don’t rush to print it until it is confirmed.
  • Advocacy journalists should also cover stories that may be unflattering to their own cause or community. Bias at its worst is a blind spot or automatic judgement such as believing that a leader in a cause or community can do no wrong.
Words to practice journalism by.

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