Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

When it comes to journalistic ethics, do definitions matter?

Earlier this month, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt trained his gaze on the conflict-of-interest questions surrounding the popular technology columnist David Pogue. Calling attention to a recent conflict—in which Pogue recommended a Mac operating system in whose success he had a financial stake—Clark noted that, overall, Pogue’s “multiple interests and loyalties raise interesting ethical issues in this new age when individual journalists can become brands of their own, stars who seem to transcend the old rules that sharply limited outside activity and demanded an overriding obligation to The Times and its readers.”

Apparently, the ethics-focused attention didn’t sit well with Pogue, who, in a podcast this weekend, angrily defended himself: “Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?” he said.

I am not a reporter. I’ve never been to journalism school. I don’t know what it means to bury the lede. (Okay, I do know what it means.) I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career…. I try to entertain and inform.

We hear this line of logic often: whether it’s a columnist saying, ‘Well, I’m not a reporter,’ or a reporter saying, ‘Well, I’m not a columnist,’ or Fox News saying, ‘Well, we’re fair and balanced’…newscasters often present themselves one way, while the work they produce says something else entirely. The fact that Pogue isn’t a journalist, the columnist suggested this weekend, exempts him from adhering to broadly accepted standards. Rules of journalism, after all, apply only to journalists.

But: how valid is that argument—for Pogue, or anyone else? In the current tumult of our media environment, the categories and divisions that have ordered journalism’s world—reporting here, opinion there, etc.—are ever more irrelevant. Fusion, increasingly, is the order of the day. And yet, even in our brave new world, common sense suggests that shared codes of conduct still—and must—remain; otherwise, we’d have chaos. So, when it comes to those standards, we wonder: how much does categorization matter anymore, anyway? When people or organizations produce work that is essentially journalistic—whether it’s reporting, or analysis, or a conflation of the two—should assessments of that work take nominal categories into account? Or should journalism, whatever its form and whoever its author, speak for itself?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.