Journalism belongs to all of us

Posted on December 17, 2010 by Janet Coats

When I refer to journalism in either my writing or my speech, I’m always very careful to refer to it as a craft and not a profession. This week, The Patterson Foundation’s President and CEO Debra Jacobs asked me about the distinction.

Part of it is reflex. My professors at the University of Missouri School of Journalism drummed it into my head when I was a student there 25 years ago – journalism is a craft, not a profession.

But most of it stems from my own beliefs about what journalism is, and what it is not.

Those Mizzou journalism professors were sticklers about the terminology because journalism does not fit the true definition of a profession. The dictionary tells us that a profession requires “prolonged training and formal qualification.’’

While the number of journalists who have master’s degrees always seems astounding to me, the truth of the matter is that journalism doesn’t require that level of education. In fact, historically journalism didn’t require any specialized education. It’s a very modern idea for journalists to even be college graduates.

Journalism also doesn’t require formal qualification. You don’t have to pass a licensing exam, like a doctor or a lawyer or a certified public accountant or a hair stylist.  And while there are plenty of ethical codes out there – from the Society of Professional Journalists (there’s that word!) to those written in individual newsrooms – journalists aren’t bound by them in order to work.

Violate the understood ethical guidelines of your peers and you might be shamed, or even fired by your employer. But no one will demand that you turn in your license and not practice journalism any more.

Journalism is a craft – a skilled activity. And the skill is in the eye of the beholder; it is not something that journalists determine.  If your words or photographs, if your databases and graphics, if your dialogue with your audience contains a sufficient level of skill to meet your community’s standards as verifiable and accurate, to satisfy and engage community members in their search for news and information – well then, my friend, you’ve committed an act of journalism.

As I’ve attended conferences and seminars in the last year, I’ve listened to debates about whether the word journalism is one we should leave behind. The argument has been that journalism implies a professionalism that has been defined by traditionalists and news companies. It’s too narrow for the forms of news and information and community building emerging today.

That debate has made me cringe a bit. I understand the desire to broaden the definitions, but I think the belief that journalism is a narrow concept misrepresents the craft’s history, traditions and its very real possibilities.

Perhaps that’s because I really was paying attention in all those History and Principles of Journalism lectures years ago. I remember not just the definition of journalism, but the reasons for it. My recollections include this little tidbit: Not only is journalism not a profession, we shouldn’t want it to be.

We shouldn’t want journalism to live by some code of behavior encased in amber, and we shouldn’t want the barrier to acts of journalism to include licenses and tests. Freedom of the press – the right to commit acts of journalism – is a right guaranteed to all of us. It’s not a right reserved to newspaper companies or a designated professional class. Journalism belongs to all of us.

That has never been more true than in this age of innovation by those who want to practice the craft in ways that take advantage of our opportunities to engage, to discuss, to connect.

The problem isn’t the word “journalism.’’ Journalism is only limited by our own lack of imagination, our own lame attempts to define and limit it. I think the word  -- and the craft it represents -- retains the power to transcend all that.

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