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.