There’s no such thing as a journalist

Radio-Canada’s Philippe Schnobb has a post about citizen journalism, in which he waxes rhetorically about whether “citizen journalists” can be trusted. It’s similar in scope to my recent post about the subject, but I think both are missing an important point that’s always bugged me when talking about journalism theory:

There’s no such thing as a journalist.

Unlike other professions, journalism has no certification board, no test to pass, no government regulation. There’s nothing to separate journalists from regular people in the law.

Certainly there are professional journalists, who make their living (or a large portion thereof) performing journalism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), usually for a big media outlet. But there are also unprofessional journalists, amateur journalists, part-time journalists. Anyone can be a journalist just by telling a story to another person. And professional journalists can easily become non-journalists, by telling lies, introducing bias or keeping the truth from themselves.

There’s no such thing as a journalist, only people who do journalism.

I prefer to think of journalism as a verb rather than a personal attribute. You might not be a gossiper, but you can spread gossip. You might not be a snow-clearer, but you can clear snow.

When it comes down to it, the only differences between the guy on the news and you is psychological conditioning. They have the big media backing, the access to the airwaves, the professional training, the well-coiffed hair. Politicians pick up the phone when they call. Businesses respond to them when they run exposés. But they don’t have to (and, in fact, many times they don’t.)

So if there’s no real difference between professional journalists and regular people, why can’t we trust citizen journalists?

Because trust is earned, not given away. And even professional journalists (for the most part) can be trusted only so much as they’ve earned that trust.

Because trust translates into good PR and ratings (and really that’s the only reason), big media do their best to give the appearance of trustworthiness. They become members of organizations like the Quebec Press Council, they publish codes of ethics, they apologize for mistakes, they fire plagiarizers and liars, and they impose their own rules on their journalists to ensure that what they produce can be trusted.

Not all big media are successful at that. We have tabloid newspapers, the Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh and others who aren’t deserving of our trust. And thanks to media consolidation we have media companies where one outlet produces a one-sided piece glorifying another. There are advertorials, sneaky PR campaigns, rewritten press releases and a bunch of other trust-eroding developments in the media that are rightfully causing us to question them.

This is not to say, of course, that new media outlets are inherently not to be trusted. In fact, many of them are more deserving of our trust than traditional media, especially in niche areas where their journalists are more specialized and know what they’re talking about. I certainly trust Michael Geist to deliver copyright law-related news better than any major newspaper in Canada (even those that run his columns). He’s earned that trust through his reputation.

That reputation takes a long time to build, and it’s at zero when it comes to the anonymous or mostly-anonymous contributions of some forms of citizen journalism.

Elsewhere in the Quebec blogosphere:

One thought on “There’s no such thing as a journalist

  1. Jack Ruttan

    But the world is changing, and there has to be some way of dealing with people who happen to be on the spot with a cell-phone or video camera (read this after responding to the later post)


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