A recipe for defining a journalist

Posted on May 17, 2010 by Janet Coats

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question: So what is journalism, anyway?

Now I’m thinking I should be posing the next logical question: So who are journalists, anyway?

I’ve posed a couple of answers to the first question. The definition of journalism offered by Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute resonated with a lot of folks: Journalism is information that helps individuals connect with their communities and uphold their civic duties.

My own definition focused even more on the impact of journalism: The real value of journalism is embedded in journalists who understand the communities they cover so deeply that they know where true expertise lies and then use that expertise to advance both knowledge and action.

But I’ve realized as I’ve thought more about that definition that it is dependent at its core on the idea of journalists who cover a community. If you look up the definition of journalist, this is what you get: “a person who writes news for a newspaper or magazine, or who prepares news reports for radio or television.’’

OK, that seems somehow less than adequate to describe the landscape in a social, digital age.

There is a lot of debate about what constitutes a journalist, and it is more than an academic one. Questions about legal protection, about access to everything from sports coverage credentials to the press gallery at the statehouse, hang on how journalists are defined.

I’m not sure how the legal and accepted professional definition will evolve. At this point, I’m more interested in how journalists come to be understood by the communities they serve.

With that in mind, I’d argue that a journalist lives by my working definition: someone who covers a community – geographic or community of interest – and comes to know it so deeply that they understand where expertise lies. Marrying that definition with Kelly’s, I’d add that a journalist takes that expertise and uses it to deliver information that helps individuals connect with their communities and uphold their civic duties.

So do you have to work for pay, or for a news organization, to be a journalist? Absolutely not. That’s a definition that is far too narrow for the rich tapestry of journalism that is being created by community sites, by non-profits and entrepreneurs, by those who practice journalism out of love for the craft or deep concern about particular topics or neighborhoods that are under-covered.

But I would argue that to be a journalist, you have to report and deliver your information regularly. Otherwise, you are just committing random acts of journalism.

I like analogies, so I’ll share the one I’ve been using to help me think about this. I love to cook, and I think I’m a pretty good everyday cook. I cook regularly, experiment with new recipes and have perfected a number of dishes of my own. I consider myself a cook.

But when it comes to baking – that’s a different story. I bake for special occasions. I’m ok at it, but I’d need to do it more regularly and devote myself to improving my skills before I could really call myself a baker.

Just as no one at my house turns down a pie when I decide to bake one, our communities shouldn’t turn down an act of journalism when it truly illuminates an issue or improves civic engagement. But when we talk about what makes a journalist, I’d say journalists need to be in that kitchen, practicing that craft, with a regularity their readers and users can depend upon.

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