Definitions — and language — matter

Posted on May 27, 2010 by Janet Coats

I’ve been asking – and attempting to find answers to – some pretty basic questions so far in this blog.

What is journalism? Who is a journalist? You’d think these would be questions we’d have figured out a long time ago. Why the compulsion to start with these basic, even elemental questions?

Because it is vitally important that we start developing common language and understanding for the evolving world of journalism in a digital age.

Like most journalists I know, I was drawn to the business because I loved language. One of the things I loved the most about working a newsroom was the common language we shared, a language unique to the craft. Learning the language of the newsroom was one of the first things an aspiring reporter did, and in many ways, it was the key to acceptance.

It didn’t matter what newsroom you worked in, a “lede’’ was always the opening paragraph of the story. A “nut graf’’ was always the paragraph in which you attempted to put the story into a broader context. A “budget’’ wasn’t a financial document, it was the working story list for the next day’s newspaper.

Beyond the jargon, newsrooms also served to pass along the stories of the trade, developing a language of values and beliefs. The daily storytelling inside a newsroom served to pass along a shared culture and common ethical guidelines. Much of that was good – that common culture served to protect standards and to transfer values that were timeless.

Of course, that common culture wasn’t all good. In addition to honoring high standards, the newsroom culture also had more than a tinge of “holier than thou’’ to it. We understood what journalism was. We decided what to cover, and what to ignore. We would determine what was newsworthy. We might give lip service to readers’ concerns, but often that is all it was – a condescending pat on the head, while the professionals decided what was “real’’ news.

One of the blessings of the digital age is the transparency it can bring with it. No longer do journalists serve a passive audience – we have to engage, we have to explain and justify ourselves, because the barriers are down. The facts we present, the motives behind our story selection, our own biases and prejudices – all of that is open to question in ways it never in the days journalists controlled the only printing press in town. This is true for all journalists – not just those who draw a paycheck from a news organization.

I believe that is to the good. Still, there is a need for a common language when we talk about what journalism means, what defines community connection, who is a journalist. In my journey for this New Media Journalism Initiative, I’m often stopping in mid-conversation to define terms, to seek clarity of meaning. Some of that has to do with learning new technologies and platforms, but much of it is about the shifting understanding of how the craft is practiced and what it means to the larger community.

Part of our thinking at Patterson is about the need for journalism innovators to connect. I’ve been thinking of that connection in terms of sharing ideas and best practices. But perhaps it needs to start at the very beginning – developing a common language for what journalism means.

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