Wick Communications

Defining what we do

In journalism on May 31, 2012 at 8:39 pm

The latest in a series of navel-gazing articles on the future of journalism comes to us from Jonathan Stray, via the Nieman Journalism Lab. Stray, a computer scientist who became an AP editor, asks the suddenly provocative question: What does a journalist do?

Stray notes many of the things we do: verify facts, report happenings, investigate things. He also points out that readers don’t really need us; they can do all that stuff themselves and then present it in a professional fashion without ever engaging someone employed as a journalist. That was always true, I suppose, but technology makes it easier now.

Hence the soul-searching.

I think one key to resolving our collective existential angst is to acknowledge the characteristics – and the expectations – inherent in being a professional.

I don’t mean to disparage citizen journalists or whatever you call those who give freely of their time to do real reporting on the concerns of the world. There are many examples of common folk shedding light on important topics. People who aren’t reporters may be wonderful researchers and writers. …

Professionalism implies a work-a-day quality, however. Volunteerism, if that is the opposite, brings to mind a skilled hobbyist. A professional reporter goes into the rain to get a story at midnight, not only because he is driven to do so but because that is how he makes a living. As a topical example, I heard of New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters wading through the muck with their reporters’ notebooks in their teeth to get the story after Hurricane Katrina. I’m sure there were many citizen journalists making valuable posts on social media and elsewhere on the Web, too, but there wasn’t an organized, sustained effort on their part to do that difficult work not only the day after the hurricane, but the day after and the day after that.

Importantly, a professional reporter doesn’t just cover one or a series of city council meetings because it deals with, say, a water-quality issue that interests him. He covers all of them, because it is his job. There is a historic arc to old newspapers that you won’t find anywhere else.

And professionalism suggests a standard of work and ethical behavior that may or may not be in evidence elsewhere on the Web.

There is a lot of talk about changes in our industry. Recently, I’ve read of the end of narrative reporting. I hope that isn’t true. I do think it will be augmented with other kinds of assets – video, data, public comments. I think Stray is right to suggest that journalists are defined by what we do. There is no reason why we can’t expand those skills without burning down the house.

Clay

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