Think of this chapter a relatively brief but important digression. One goal is to persuade you that we still need journalism, no matter who’s going to do it. I also want to suggest, in the process, that we’re going to have to expand our understanding of the media and journalistic ecosystems, because many more of us are participating—and all of us can participate—in this new world of media and information.
Let me reassure you, as I did in the introduction, that I’m not trying to turn you into a journalist. But I will, in later chapters, urge you to be a contributing member of the media ecosystem, not just a consumer, and in ways that provide useful, trustworthy information to others.
For now, though, let’s use the words “journalism” and “journalist” to explore the part of the overall media ecosystem that we all want to be useful and trustworthy. Let’s start by asking a question I hear all the time:
Who is a journalist?
You’ve already guessed, I hope, that this is the Wrong Question.
Here’s the right one:
What is journalism?
This is more than semantics. Asking the question in the right way has real-world implications. The language of so-called “press shield laws,” for example, aims to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists whom they tell about government or corporate wrongdoing. But as we’ll discuss in the next chapter, these laws could offer false comfort by narrowly defining what a “journalist” is and leaving out a huge range of people and institutions that effectively practice journalism nowadays. The goal should be to protect the act of journalism, as opposed to the people declared to be journalists.
I hope we can agree that the New York Times is journalism. Ditto BBC News. Sometimes they get things wrong—even badly wrong—but they do journalism.
I also hope we can agree that the “Blah Blah Blah” blog (actually, there are quite a few blogs with that name!) and the YouTube video of “Nat and Foxy disco dancing” are not journalism. They may be interesting to their small audiences, and we should celebrate the fact that someone is trying to be creative. But they’re not journalism.
If we dig deeper into new media, the answer starts to get complicated. Some of what appeared on my former neighborhood email list was journalism; most wasn’t. But consider the Talking Points Memo collection of blogs, founded by Joshua Micah Marshall. They’re online only, and they have a politically left-of-center world view, but they are so unquestionably journalism that they’ve won a George Polk Award, one of the craft’s truly prestigious honors.
Consider also Brad DeLong, a former Clinton administration Treasury Department official who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, writes a brilliant blog about policy and many other things. He does something that surely looks like journalism: commentary informed by knowledge.
Or take what happened during a Christmas Day blizzard in 2009: people posted local road conditions and information about where stranded travelers could hunker down with local families. Even if that can’t be called journalism in a traditional sense, it’s certainly more useful to a family in a sedan on the side of the road, using a phone that has a Web browser, than any roundup story by a news organization.
Thanks to the Digital Age tools available to all of us, many institutions never known for journalism are now contributing information with powerful journalistic impact. These almost-journalists include the Council on Foreign Relations and some advocacy organizations that do deep research and present it with care, including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.
Any one of us can, and many of us will, commit an act of journalism. We may contribute to the journalism ecosystem once, rarely, frequently or constantly. How we deal with these contributions—deciding to make one; what we do with what we’ve created; and how we use what others have created—is complex and evolving. But this is the future.