Are Bloggers Journalists?

    April 11, 2005

Ana Marie Cox, author of the Wonkette blog and keynote speaker at the upcoming IABC international conference, dismissed the question “Who is a journalist?” when it was posed to her at a panel discussion telecast on C-Span.


According to a report from Frank Barnako, she replied, “It’s a boring question. The only time it is relevant is when there is a legal question or it’s a matter of how much space is available” for the media to work. “I hope this is the last panel I sit on which concerns this.”

Others on the panel, of course, weighed in. Congress Daily’s John Stanton, for instance, noted, “”Every blog post is to advance an agenda. People would not accept that from a real reporter.”

I agree with Ana Marie (for once). I’m fed up with the arguments. First of all, how do you define “journalist?” The word, after all, comes from “journal,” making a journalist someone who maintains a journal or diary. Bloggers most definitely are journalists under that definition. At San Diego State University, a Web site defines a journalist as “Someone who works in the news gathering business.” Using this definition, some bloggers are (such as reporters who maintain blogs); most aren’t. Wikipedia likes to play the definition fast and loose: “A person who practices journalism.”

With so many definitions, and just as many beliefs held by people on all sides of the argument, how does a society or culture settle the question? The answer, perhaps, is that we’re asking the wrong question. The right question might be: Who is a professional journalist?

The answer doesn’t help when it comes to legal questions, such as whether bloggers are entitled to the same (limited and overrated) protections enjoyed by newspaper reporters. But as far as arriving at expectations from journalists, it could help a lot. Professional journalists, simply put, are paid for their work, most often by journalism-based enterprises like newspapers and television news channels. Because they are part of a profession, they are expected to adhere to a set of professional standards. When it comes to light that a New York Times reporter fabricated stories, the outrage is justified because we expected him to abide by the standards of the profession.

Bloggers may be journalists, but with rare exceptions, we’re not paid by a journalism-centered organization to do it. (Getting paid by Google for click-throughs from Ad Words doesn’t count.) Nobody expects bloggers to live up to standards; we have no standards to live up to. We never took classes in blogging or earned degrees. When it comes to light that something written in a blog was inaccurate-and worse, the blogger did not check the facts with two independent sources-nobody bats an eyelash. Bloggers who fail to measure up to the standards of professional journalism can’t be fired, nor can they be sanctioned by their professional association, such as the Society of Professional Journalists. (I don’t see a Society of Professional Bloggers gaining any traction any time soon.)

Stanton, of course, is wrong. Not every blogger has an agenda and even among those who do, not every post is designed to further it. But he’s right, mostly, that there is a line to draw between bloggers and journalists-as long as he drops the word “professional” into the equation.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.