“…while the medium in which [journalists] work affects the nature of specific tasks, it does not inherently make those tasks any more or less journalistic.” – Cecilia Friend and Jane B. Singer, Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Translations
1. What is a journalist?
It’s been a rough couple decades for the practice of journalism. With the expansion of the Internet into everyday life came the decline of publishers and newspapers; DVRs slashed advertising dollars on television while interesting or groundbreaking articles were transcripted or simply scanned and posted as-is on the Internet. We used to be able to count on newspapers, magazines, and television to make identifying journalism and journalists easy. Not anymore.
Piracy is an ever-present concern for those media, with sites like The Pirate Bay and Megaupload under lawsuit from all sides and all threatened interests. Meanwhile, social media and mobile internet make most users’ experience of the Internet into an echo chamber. Facebook has an algorithm explicitly designed to show only updates from friends you agree with, and prunes your feed without your knowledge. Most articles are only read through word of mouth – say, some esoteric thing gets revived or a charismatic intellectual gets profiled. Magazines feature controversial and populist subjects in a desperate bid to be the last to fall. It’s not a stretch to say that political knowledge outside of that presented by demagogues on Fox News or CNN, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, is at an all-time minimum. Most people would rather not think about it and get on with life.
I believe it’s true that we’re at the nadir of popular journalism. In the minds of most of the developed world, journalists are mythical fedora-clad defenders of freedom of speech or Erin Brockovich. But given Fox News’ “fair and balanced” reporting, the popularity of entertainment news, the satirical commentary of Jon Stewart and company, and the adoption of paywalls, it’s easy to begin thinking of journalism as a profession on the way out – at least when one defines a journalist as “someone working for a newspaper, magazine, television studio, or media conglomerate whose job is to represent the world’s events.” The future of people who fit that description is uncertain; the increased prevalance of multi-corporation conglomerates affects both modern conceptions of privacy and radically limits many reporters’ agency in terms of what “truth” they can tell. This has been observed so many times that it all has a rote feel.
So in the year 2012, asking “what is a journalist” is – unsurprisingly – a fraught, difficult question. The old limitations which made that definition easy – limitations of medium, of employer, of potential reach – are quickly being eradicated with the rise of the social ubiquitous web. Especially when bloggers are added into the mix – people like Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington, not to mention the Gawker network, TMZ, and other controversial tastemakers – it increasingly begins to seem like anyone might be a journalist.
And that’s true, more or less. When considering the question in Online Journalism Ethics, Friend and Singer turn to the discipline of ethics to define the work of journalism, as follows:
“A journalist in our society is someone whose primary purpose is to provide the information that citizens of a democracy need to be free and self-governing; someone who acts in accordance with a firm commitment to balance, fairness, restraint, and service; someone whom members of the public can trust to help them make sense of the world and to make sound decisions about the things that matter.”
- xvi, Online Journalism ethics, Friend and Singer
This might not seem to clarify things much. For professions which serve a social purpose, such as doctors, lawyers, and academics, we’re used to the idea of some qualifying institution that certifies people to perform that role. Lawyers have to pass the bar and be tested on the intricacies of law as well as the ethical obligations which come with legally representing another person; doctors are tested on their skill, knowledge of the human body, and medical ability; and academics in various roles, mathematicians, historians, literature scholars, geologists, submit work to a panel of their peers who essentially make sure that the student is familiar with the academic conversation and is capable of contributing meaningfully to it. That enables them to work within academia and participate in that conversation or work for a company in an advisory role based on their knowledge of that conversation. A plumber recieves a certificate which says that they are able and competent in the field of plumbing repair, et cetera.
Not so with journalists. Although it’s possible to earn degrees in journalism, possessing them doesn’t make you a journalist. Like art, literature, drama, and comedy, journalism is a field which you join by making and publishing journalism. It’s downright tautological when you look at it this way, but it’s also accurate. Anyone can write “journalism”, because all journalism seems to require at a basic level is that you label a piece of prose “journalism”. It’s the same with art and writing. Anyone can claim to be an author or an artist. It’s one of the reasons those professions have very little esteem unless the person is rich or famous. There are a lot of wannabes.
What distinguishes journalism and journalists is the role they perform. Much as an actor is someone who plays roles, but chooses specific roles to play, journalists are writers and thinkers who decide to act in a certain way, according to a code of behaviour. So while anyone can claim to be a journalist, it’s what that person produces and the manner in which they behave which counts. It’s an “active profession;” one in which you are judged by your activities rather than your background. Same as with, say, concept art in games. You can have an art degree, but it doesn’t mean you automatically make good concept art, which is suited to the needs of the particular role concept art performs in the creation of a movie or game.
In other words, a journalist is someone who decides to create journalism while acting according to professional journalistic ethics. People who create journalism unethically, or who ethically write things which don’t qualify as journalism (see above quote), aren’t journalists – at least not by the ethical definition. Journalists who violate their ethics aren’t held accountable to a certifying body, as with doctors or lawyers or bartenders; any repercussions are legal or professional – they might be blacklisted, but they could still theoretically be a journalist. It’s important to note here that I’m writing about journalists as distinct from commentators, essayists, analysts, consultants, etc. Being a journalist is a voluntary act, and many decide not to engage with these responsibilities. It doesn’t necessarily make those professions bad, or immoral – those are things which can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. It’s difficult to be a journalist, and journalistic ethics are constantly under pressure from many sources, old and new.
How could this possibly apply to video games and those who write about them? We’ll look at that next time.