A Blog Around The Clock

What is Journalism?

For several decades, journalism happened only in the three ‘traditional’ methods of communication: print, radio and television. The means of production of these is expensive, thus owned only by wealthy individuals or corporations, or heavily subsidized by such (through advertising and such). One unifying trait of the three technical modes of traditional media is that they are all broadcast media: one-to-many. As such a state of things persisted for several decades and journalism got professionalized during this period, a common cultural definition of journalism emerged: whatever is done by professionals paid by media corporations owned by wealthy individuals or corporations (“if it’s in the paper, it’s journalism” mindset….including the horoscope, comics, obituaries and ads).

Today, there are new means of production of media which are very cheap – everyone with electricity, online access and some kind of gadget (e.g. computer or smart-phone) can produce media. The new methods of communication, the “New Media” is also characterized by the ability for two-way communication: it is not broadcast any more, but many-to-many. This fuzzies the definition of journalism in several important ways: a) everyone can do it, b) many do it for free, c) it is a conversation, not a lecture. Journalism has been deprofessionalised.

The traditional definition of journalism, the one that held for several decades, does not stand any more. It does not apply to the world in the early 21st century, just as it did not apply to the early 20th century. The long intervening period of certainty as to what journalism is, is gone.

In a comment on a blog, I wrote that the delimiting line of what is and what isn’t journalism will be arbitrary:

“This all hinges on the definition of “journalism” which is quickly expanding these days to include many forms that did not exist until recently. The natural response by professional journalists is to recoil and to excessively narrow down the definition of journalism to only ‘investigative journalism’ as that is one last area where they feel they can at least stand on equal ground with millions of amateurs. On the other hand, the over-expansive definition of journalism to equate it with ‘communication’ (any and all of communication, regardless of the medium, author, if money changes hands, copyright owner, etc.) blurs the question too much.

Where is the dividing line between journalism and non-journalistic communication? I don’t know. But wherever it is, it is arbitrary, i.e., something we can fight about, or agree on, but really just a social/cultural decision we need to make.”

I am not sure if the word “arbitrary” was a good choice. What I meant is that the dividing line will be arbitrated by the society at large. The representatives of New and Old Media are pulling the dividing line in two opposite directions. The New Media folks (like me) are trying to expand it to include as much as possible (though probably, maybe or just perhaps not the daily oral conversations, personal e-mails and DMs, your shopping list on a sticky-note, your holiday photographs, or even the crossword-puzzle in the newspaper). The Old Media folks, feeling threatened, are trying to narrow it down. Different people use different criteria for how narrow, or along which axis, but the usual examples, when analyzed to their cores, are narrowing it down to ONLY investigative reporting, ONLY brilliantly stylish writing, ONLY reporting that was paid for by a media company, ONLY stuff that occurs in traditional channels (print, radio, TV), ONLY one-to-many lecturing (as it implies expertise, which many-to-many conversation dispels as a myth), ONLY reporting that pretends to be “objective” (i.e., showing ‘both sides’), and/or ONLY reporting that involves interviewing people.

Of course, people (“sources” – important term: sources of what? Information, quotes, opinion?) are middle-men to information and they are untrustworthy. Information how the world really works is much more important than what different people think how the world works. Thus showing the (link to raw) data is much more trustworthy than showing quotes (with or without a link to the full transcript). Especially in science journalism. Journalists focus on people, what they do and what they say. They use that as a proxy for learning about the world. Scientists distrust people and go to the data directly. If journalists did that, adopted the scientific method in their own work, science journalism would be much better. But doing this requires expertise, almost as much as working scientists have. Which means that a good science journalist will a) specialize in one broad area of science, b) work closely with scientists and PIOs to get the full scope of information (on top of profuse reading of the primary literature) and c) have their work critiqued and improved by the audience, many of whom are themselves scientific experts in that field. In other words, modern journalism is a collaborative endeavor, not a solitary act.

So, what is and what isn’t journalism is changing. It is a very fuzzy line right now. It will probably remain fuzzy, but at least the dividing fuzzy line may be centered somewhere so at least extremes will be clearly Yes or No. Where that ‘somewhere’ will be is something that the society at large will settle down on in the future. It is hard to predict where exactly that will be. But the definition of journalism is not something that we can decree. It will be something that emerges from the practice.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike
    March 16, 2010

    Excellent post.

    However, I take issue with this passage:

    “Journalists focus on people, what they do and what they say. They use that as a proxy for learning about the world. Scientists distrust people and go to the data directly.”

    I think this is a false dichotomy. SOME journalists focus entirely on people and what they say, and those are BAD journalists. Good journalists think for themselves and use MANY different avenues to “learn about the world,” just like good scientists! Also, good journalists distrust people just as much as good scientists do.

    Still, isn’t “what people do and say” just another form of data? As a journalist, I say YES, and that’s a big reason I moved to New York, undergraduate biology degree in hand, to attend J-school.

  2. #2 Ferris Jabr
    March 16, 2010

    I also really enjoyed this post and I agree with just about everything you say. However, I share some of Mike’s feelings in response to this passage:

    “Journalists focus on people, what they do and what they say. They use that as a proxy for learning about the world. Scientists distrust people and go to the data directly. If journalists did that, adopted the scientific method in their own work, science journalism would be much better.”

    I agree that science journalism, and journalism in general, could benefit from much more integration of raw data – especially when that data appears as an engaging infographic and when the reader is provided with the original source of data.

    But scientific data is collected by people using tools made by people. It certainly isn’t infallible.

    Quotes and characters bring a lot to journalism that data cannot offer: emotion, personality, narrative, an articulated perspective based on years worth of experience. Quotes and characters are vital to helping readers relate to a story and engage with the science. If science journalism was pure data and analysis, people wouldn’t read it for the same reason they don’t read through research journals: it’s too boring for most people.

  3. #3 Coturnix
    March 16, 2010

    I agree on “some”. Of course, this is a quick blog post. Whenever I add all the qualifier, exceptions and nuance, my blog post becomes a monster that, when printed, is 30 pages long.

    People are interesting sources of data – in social sciences, of course ;-)

    And a cute story is a great ‘hook’ for people to delve deeper into the topic including, if they possess expertise, the data.

  4. #4 Ed Yong
    March 16, 2010

    “Whenever I add all the qualifier, exceptions and nuance, my blog post becomes a monster that, when printed, is 30 pages long.”

    And yet you would surely get cross at a mainstream journalist for covering a science story and losing accuracy for the sake of brevity. There isn’t a binary choice between long, nuanced pieces and short, overgeneralised ones. The passage that Mike and Ferris took issue with could have been nuanced with a handful of extra words.

    That’s nitpickery. I really liked this post (short, too!) especially your dislike for attempts to narrow the definition of science journalism. To repeat something I’ve said elsewhere:

    It is less useful to me to repeatedly point out where the line exists between journalists and bloggers than to point out examples where it has been crossed. Re-drawing the line corrals people into boxes defined by social norms and ingrained habits… We need to encourage people to step out of those boxes and try new things.

    And I loved this:

    …the definition of journalism is not something that we can decree. It will be something that emerges from the practice.

    Too right. It will arise organically from the bottom up not from the top down.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    March 16, 2010

    Oh, I agree. I should have used the qualifier “some”. Quick writing of a post often leaves such imperfections. Also makes arguments more pointed ;-)

  6. #6 Mike
    March 16, 2010

    As usual, well said, Ed.

  7. #7 Elia Ben-Ari
    March 16, 2010

    Another provocative post, Bora :-)

    When you say science journalists should “specialize in one broad area of science,” how broad (or narrow) do you mean? Some science journalists, for example Ed Yong, do a great job covering quite a broad range of subjects–but perhaps those are the exceptions.

    I agree completely that a science journalist should read the original research and be able to understand it–though perhaps not at the level of a scientist working in that field. However, I don’t think showing/linking to the raw data is going to be *enough* for the majority of a science journalist’s audience, particularly when the audience includes non-scientists. Providing a link to the paper, yes, but substituting that for some analysis, either in the form of quotes from another scientist in the field or (in some cases, perhaps rare) from the journalist himself, no.

  8. #8 Coturnix
    March 16, 2010

    Let’s say….what would be separate departments at the University. If your specialty is astronomy, your editor should not ask you to write about evolution, or vice versa. Far less specialization than research scientists need to have. I made an example of a researcher studying estrogen receptor alpha in a comment to a previous post, saying that a journalist cannot and schould not go that narrow.

  9. #9 DeLene
    March 16, 2010

    I’m not a big fan of advocating that a science writer pigeon hole themselves into writing about a specific field or even a narrow part of a field. First, from my perspective, it limits business opportunity and that is not a good thing for a writer. Second, a competent writer can cover many topics. It’s more about knowing what questions to ask versus mastering the working knowledge within a specific field. For example, I recently had some good reviews from a client for whom I’ve written lay articles about economic and business management research. Not something I’m trained in. At all.

  10. #10 Ed Yong
    March 16, 2010

    Developing a speciality isn’t quite the same as specialising in one area. The former should probably be encouraged but I don’t think the latter helps anyone.

    I do agree that it’s a good idea to be very well-versed in certain fields, not only because you become more accurate and develop a better bullshit filter, but because sources are more likely to go to you first. So in the UK, Mark Henderson is known for his genetics reporting and Ian Sample is known for his physics reporting.

    But both journos are more than capable of writing about other areas. It’s about knowing the limits of your own knowledge so that you know, as DeLene says, what questions to ask, and you know where you might be likely to make mistakes. On NERS, I’ll never write about something that I don’t understand, but I’ll sometimes take on difficult stories that flirt with the boundaries of my understanding. That’s the only way to learn, surely? Neuroscience, for example, is an area that I’m not trained in at all but that I’m getting better at writing about.

  11. #11 Gurusharan
    March 17, 2010

    i want to become journalist but i dont know what is the scope for it