What is the purpose of journalism? That question depends on whether there is a profession of journalism, as “profession” is described at Wikipedia and elsewhere. My firsthand experience as a federal whistleblower who has interacted with a number of journalists over the years is that most journalists do NOT consider themselves to be members of a profession. Maybe a trade or guild, but profession—no.
Professions, by definition, are significantly self-regulating via one or more professional credentials that are earned by some combination of experience, exam, and education, and which can be removed/revoked for cause. There is no professional credential in journalism—such as “board certified editor/investigative reporter/beat reporter”—that signifies a journalist is professionally trustworthy—competent, ethical, and accountable.
So there really is no profession of journalism as there really is no viable code of ethics for members of the journalism profession. Only journalists can change that and they seem to lack the moral courage to self-regulate via some professional credential. And they wonder why they are not much trusted or respected by the public. So anyone who wants to claim to be a journalist is one, and journalism is for whatever anyone wants it to be for, including just being another name for “public relations,” and a “tool for reputation management.”
Maybe the accurate answer is “the purpose of the word “journalism” is to allow members of the public relations profession to better manage the reputations of their clients/employers.” After all, the public relations profession is inhabited by many who formerly called themselves “journalists.”
Comment on cjr.org
The editors: The following letter slipped through the editorial shuffle last time around.
The article by David Conrad (“Underwritten or undercut?” CJR, July/August) looks at the funding of journalists filing stories from overseas by two nonprofit groups, but does so through the rearview mirror. Looking through the front windshield would show that these groups, among others, are using new technologies and new support mechanisms to provide international news on multiple platforms to new and diverse audiences.
The expressed concern is that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the International Reporting Project have supplanted traditional news organizations as arbiters of international coverage. These two groups didn’t shrink the size of the press corps covering the world outside US borders—that happened when readers fell away, advertising shifted, the news hole got reduced, staffs got cut, and budgets got slashed. These groups and others have come in to fill the gap. If they disappeared tomorrow, the old days would not return. (Disclosure: Jon Sawyer of the Pulitzer Center serves on the board of the National Press Foundation, but did not see this letter before submission.)
The concern in the Conrad piece is that the staffs at the two organizations “aren’t governed by the interests of a general readership, and they can’t provide the vetting of stories that occurs in a major newsroom.” Editors can always send it back for more reporting or better tape. If the story is inherently compromised because the independent journalists have taken nonprofit money, the news organizations can simply refuse to work with them ahead of time. And if the allegation were true, a real live desk editor might have told us about the shoddy quality of the work she receives from PC- or IRP-supported reporters. But we never hear from such a person.
In fact, Conrad never tells us what’s wrong with the stories he’s criticizing, except that he doesn’t like the way the authors are paid. The article voices complaints that the nonprofits, funded by philanthropies, are forcing coverage into their own limited spheres. It cites “sanitation, gender issues, food security, maternal mortality” as topics that have been funded by the NGOs. Those topics of course have also appeared in the traditional media. And in the developing world, these are the issues. Conrad interviews four journalists who also worry about the groups’ impact. Curiously, all four have received funding from either IRP or PC. As has Mr. Conrad, the author. So how bad can they be?