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Government tries to define ‘journalist,’ sparks debate in the industry

What is a journalist? That doesn’t seem like a difficult question, but it’s one that people ranging from government officials to news consumers have been asking.

A bill pending in Congress aimed at protecting journalists from having to testify against confidential sources in court attempts to define who a “journalist” is. The definition in the Free Flow of Information Act is “a person who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism, including a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such a person.”

The government's new definition of "journalist" leaves out citizen journalists, bloggers and unpaid writers. Many professionals disagree with this definition. Graphic credit: Freepress

The government’s new definition of “journalist” leaves out many people who engage in new forms of journalism, including citizen journalists, bloggers and unpaid writers. Many people in the journalism industry have explored the      definition for themselves. Graphic credit: Freepress.net

This definition sparked a debate in the journalism community. While some acknowledged that it proficiently covered professional and student journalists,  others argued that it needed to include the new wave of citizen journalists, unpaid bloggers and Twitter users. Many journalists and activists decided it was time to take matters into their own hands and define the modern journalist for themselves.

In response to the bill, Jonathan Peters, a media lawyer and professor at the University of Dayton, and Edson Tandoc Jr., a Fulbright scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism, conducted a study to see how professionals define “journalist.” After interviewing dozens of professors, lawmakers and actual journalists, they found that the general definition among professionals was very similar to the government’s definition; “someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating news and information to serve the public interest.”

Peters disagreed strongly with the findings. “The definition delivers a fatal blow to the people engaging in many new forms of journalism,” he said in an article on PBS’s Mediashift. He argued that these people will still feel compelled to keep providing news, without the guaranteed protection traditional journalists will have under the shield law. Peters also said the narrow definition discourages and limits innovation in the industry.

A number of citizen journalists and bloggers have also voiced their disappointment in the government’s definition.  Some professional journalists, like Lisa Carricaburu of the Salt Lake Tribune, have said that one should be required to have some specific training and expertise to be a credible journalist. Others, like Josh Stearns of the Free Press Campaign, argued that instead of defining a journalist, the focus should be on defining and acknowledging “acts of journalism,” without regard to who writes them.

For me, the biggest issue with including citizen journalists and bloggers in the definition of a journalist is credibility. Sites like CNN iReport are well on the way the to finding a solution to this — allowing citizen journalists to post stories to be edited and fact-checked by professional editors. I don’t think we should include citizen journalists and bloggers in the definition yet, but I think we will be able to soon with more experimentation.

Ultimately, the definition of “journalist” is based on personal beliefs. Because of the constantly shifting and evolving nature of the job, it’s difficult and nearly impossible to create a permanent and satisfying description. However, educated and friendly debates may help us move toward finding a fair definition for the time being.

_By Jordan Kranse

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