“A ‘58 Chevy,” says the son. “And it was there this morning,” he adds eagerly, not knowing why this is important but sensing somehow that it is.
“Tell me if you see it again!” says mom, affectionately ruffling his hair.
A reporter is born.
But you asked what a journalist is. My sixth edition (2007) of the Oxford English Dictionary, shorter version, says a journalist is “a person who earns a living by writing for or editing a newspaper or periodical. Also, a reporter for radio or television.”
That sounds a little limited and old-fashioned, though the “earns a living” part is interesting: It implies the journalist spends most of his time committing journalism, which implies he sees it or approaches it as a profession.
My try: A journalist is a person professionally engaged in attempting to gather and publish information on issues of broad public interest. He or she operates in a public forum, such as a newspaper, website, blog, magazine, newsletter, broadcast or cable network. A journalist knows and adheres to the rules and traditions of his profession; he reports within certain guidelines, such as striving for accuracy, playing it straight, not making things up. Ideally, he is familiar with the history and literature of his profession. Journalists are subject to libel and slander laws, and related laws such as those touching on issues of reckless disregard. Journalism is not a free pass. On the other hand, nobody minds if they get some extra protections because we need them and, as a democracy, cannot function without them.
You don’t have to go to journalism school to be a journalist, but it’s certainly not terrible and may not hurt you at all. You may be a gifted natural. But no matter whether you are academically trained or not, you have to be a pro. You have to know the rules. These rules used to be taught, and sometimes with a rough hand, by older editors and reporters. But in the past 10 years they took the buyout. No one has taken their place. No one can. This is a bigger threat to real journalism, and carries with it more unhappy implications for the future, than any new technology.
Peggy Noonan is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and the author of eight books on American politics, history, and culture.
At its best, journalism is for guarding democracy and guaranteeing its promise of equality and justice. It is for exposing tyranny in order to stop it—tyranny that arises unavoidably in human affairs from the exercise of power, the accumulation of wealth, or the habits of hatred and corruption. How ignorant we would be without the explanatory powers of a free press, how diseased with dark secrets without its antiseptic action! No one could enjoy the duties and privileges of citizenship or be secure in their liberty without it. Isn’t all this obvious?
David Sassoon is the founder and publisher of Inside Climate News, which won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting this year.
A while ago I blurted out that “the press is the immune system of democracy.” Maybe I remember civics class too vividly, but that biases me in terms of what I consider the major role of a journalist: to hold the powerful to account. We need government that we can trust, and we need good, trustworthy reporting to make that happen.
Among professionals, trust is built upon a code of behavior. That means a code of ethics, and then, the hard part—some way to hold the professional to account. I’m an outsider, a news consumer, so I can’t say how that should happen, but the country needs news it can trust. We should do better as consumers, listening only to journalists who avow a code of ethics and are accountable to that code.
Craig Newmark is the founder of Craigslist and a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.
Journalism is to document and explain what’s going on in the world. The kind of journalism we do at our show also takes as its mission to entertain. On a weekly schedule, we don’t think you have to sacrifice the idealistic, mission-driven parts of the job in order to entertain.
Anyone who’s trying to get at the truth of a situation can be a journalist. It’s not fucking rocket science. Talk to people, write down or record what they say, use good judgment in picking quotes and evaluating the overall truth of what’s happening. Try to summarize it interestingly for others. A kid can do it.
Ira Glass is the creator and host of This American Life.