What's in a name? The quest to define journalism

by Lida Tsene and Sofia Iordanidou

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We’re living in an era, where the profession of journalism is changing alongside the entire media ecosystem. From audiences to business models and from new digital tools to fake news, the field of media is not the same anymore. Nowadays, more and more journalists are losing their jobs, while at the same time new digital skills are becoming crucial for younger and older journalists.(1)  At the same time, traditional media is losing in trust and money, while audiences ask for more transparency and pluralism during the sharing of information. The ‘old’ business models in the media landscape seem to fail stressed by advertising cuts and the lack of willingness, on behalf of audiences, to pay for content they don’t trust or even like. 

For the first time in its history, even social media is facing a crisis. Fake news and dubious stories are disseminated by social media and platforms such as Google and Facebook as well as traditional media. According to the 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, citizens are moving towards more personalised and private messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber) for distribution and commentary of news and information.

In this context, we need to rethink how we perceive journalism and to redefine the term journalism. During the past few years new definitions for the term journalism have seen the light: investigative journalism, citizen journalism, data journalism, social journalism, quality journalism. But are all the above just different sides of the (same) coin or is there a real need for multiple definitions of journalism? 

Scholars and practitioners argue whether there is one, or multiple definitions, or whether journalism is an art, craft or science. The boundaries of journalism are becoming less discrete, as various ‘actors’ - journalists, citizens, hackers, data scientists, algorithm machines and platforms - interact in order to produce and disseminate information.

But how do journalist define themselves today? How do they perceive journalism?

In September 2018, we conducted in-depth interviews with 25 people working in the field of journalism, either as journalists, or academics, in order to interpret their understanding of contemporary journalism. Twenty of them were journalists and five of them were academics working in Greece. In 2015 we also ran an online questionnaire, answered by 300 Greek and Cypriot journalists identifying major trends in journalism, such as the relationship between media, politics and the financial crisis, new journalistic skills, but also if journalism could be considered as art, craft or science or a combination of all the above.

The quantitative data revealed that the majority of survey participants agreed that journalism is a combination of craft, art and science reminding us of Water Lippman’s words (2)  that, “It does not matter that the news is not susceptible of mathematical statement. In fact, just because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest scientific virtues”. Moreover, and although we are constantly talking about new skills in the media landscape, our survey proved that still, the most wanted skills by journalists are the most classical ones. More specifically, the five most important skills were: good judgment and assessment of news (98%), data validation and cross checking (98%), data collection based on facts (95%), acknowledgement of current issues (93%), and knowledge of the code of ethics and deontology (88%). (3)

The majority of people we interviewed agreed that although journalism has changed today, its core essence has not. They described a journalist as a professional who is paid to deliver facts about current socio-economic-political developments to the public. Another definition they provided described a journalist as, “the person who, in a professional way, connects information and provides context in order for citizens to be able to understand them”. What’s really interesting, is the fact that the majority chose to use the term professional to describe the role of journalism and to distinguish it from potential acts of journalism, committed by various ‘actors’. The characteristics of fact checking, objectivity, service of public interest, analysis and documentation were also highlighted by participants, while attempting to define journalism. The above definition brings us close to the definition developed by Peters and Tandoc (4)  after a study drawing from the scholarly, legal and industry domains. According to them, “a journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating (activities) news and information (output) to serve the public interest (social role)”.

Another important observation is that the majority of participants were able to distinguish the new tools developed while performing journalism from the actual practice of journalism. They spoke about digital platforms, techniques in data gathering or fact checking but they declared that, “we may witness changes to how journalism works today and how new tools have affected our work, but the DNA of journalism remains the same”. As Thomas Patterson (5)  said, we have to keep in mind that, “Truth is the holy grail of journalism. Journalistic truth is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. And that does not change, even now in our era, where we are discussing the new role and the new skills for journalists”.

If we attempt to analyse all the above, we’ll end up concluding that most of the given definitions for journalism include characteristics such as: professionalism, service of public good and communities, transparency, quality, citizenship, participation, analysis, knowledge, research. In addition, most of them focus more on the process than the product, stating clearly that no matter who proclaims himself a journalist, journalism is a professional process with certain values. Going a step further, no matter how the function and operational tools of journalism have changed over the years, the process remains the same, despite the fact that sometimes, as social reformer Henry David Thoreau warned, we “are becoming the tools of our tools”.

So, if we want to define journalism today, we should probably look back to the most classical definitions and agree that the journalistic core values have not changed at all. Quality journalism, data journalism, investigative journalism, digital journalism, they’re all are just journalism, following the five intellectual principles, as described by Kovach and Rosentiel (6) as the basis for a science of reporting: Never add anything that was not there, never deceive the audience, be as transparent as possible about your methods and motives, rely on your own original reporting, exercise humility. 

Will journalism survive and adapt to the challenges the current landscape poses? That’s something that remains to be seen. Nevertheless, as sociologist Wilbert Moore once wrote, “What is of enduring importance is the homely truth that new knowledge or innovations in technique and practice threaten the very basis upon which established professionals rest their claims to expert competence”.

How would you define journalism in today’s era of fake news and alternative facts? As Lida and Sofia mention above, do you think journalism will survive today's challenges? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

References

1. Gillmor, D. (2010). Mediactive Sebastopol: Dan Gillmor.

2. Lippmann, W. (2008). Liberty and the News. Princeton University Press.

3. Iordanidou, S., Tsene, L. & Kyritsis, M, (2016). New learning skills for journalists in the digital era through open and e-learning platforms: the case of Greece and Cyprus. In “Medias Numeriques & Communications Εlectronique, 4th Intenational Conference Université du Havre, Actes du Colloque International”, Université du Havre, pp. 305-315.

4. Peters, J., Tandoc, E. Jr. (2013). “People who aren’t really reporters at all, who gave no professional qualifications”: Defining a journalist and deciding who may claim the privileges. NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. Quorum 34, pp. 34-63.

5. Patterson, T. (2013). Informing the news.  The need for knowledge based reporting. Available at https://journalistsresource.org/tip-sheets/research/knowledge-based-reporting/. (Retrieved, April 25th 2019).

6. Kovach, B., Rosentiel, T. (2001). The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. Penguin Random House.

Author Profile(s)

Dr Lida Tsene holds a PhD in social media and social responsibility from Panteion University, Department of Communication, Media and Culture. Since 2008 she’s collaborated with the Advertising and Public Relations Lab of Panteion University as researcher and teaching associate. She worked as adjunct professor at the Department of Informatics and Mass Media at Western Greece Technical Educational Institution from 2010-2014. Since 2012 she’s taught the Communication and New Journalism masters program at the Open University of Cyprus and the Cultural Organisations Management masters program at the Hellenic Open University since 2013. Lida has worked as a journalist, corporate social responsibility and communication consultant, and since 2005, Public Relations and Educational Programs Director at Comicdom Press. In 2015 she founded Athens Comics Library. She also collaborates with Impact Hub Athens where she works as a communication strategist and business development consultant.

Sofia

Sofia Iordanidou is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Communication at the Open University of Cyprus where she’s responsible for the Communication and Journalism masters program, and the President of the Advanced Media Institute, Applied Research in Communication and Journalism. She is the editor of “Dimosiografia” journal and manages dimosiografia.com.She has extensive experience in the field of journalism and communication strategy, working for the Voice of America in New York and as White House correspondent for newspapers in Greece. In Athens, she was a journalist for both ERT and MEGA television channels. Her scientific research focuses on journalism and the functioning of the media, as well as the challenges posed by the transition to the digital age and social media, communication strategy and media literacy.