Who is a journalist? What is journalism?

August, 2014

The ‘democratization’ of media – technology that allows citizens to engage in journalism and publication of many kinds – blurs the identity of journalists and the idea of what constitutes journalism.

In the previous century, journalists were a clearly defined group. For the most part, they were professionals who wrote for major mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. The public had no great difficulty in identifying members of the “press.”

Today, citizens without journalistic training and who do not work for mainstream media calls themselves journalists, or write in ways that fall under the general description of a journalists as someone who regularly writes on public issues for a public or audience.

It is not always clear whether the term “journalist” begins or ends. If someone does what appears to be journalism, but refuses the label ‘journalist’ is he or she a journalist? If comedian Jon Stewart refuses to call himself a journalist, but magazines refer to him as an influential journalist (or refers to him as someone who does engage in journalism) is Stewart a journalist?

Is a person expressing their opinions on their Facebook site a journalist?

What is journalism?

A lack of clarity over who is a journalist leads to definitional disputes over who is doing journalism. That leads to the question: What is journalism? Many people believe, “What is journalism?” or “Is he or she doing journalism?” is a more important question than whether who can call themselves a journalist.

At least three approaches to this question are possible – skeptical, empirical, and normative. Skeptically, one dismisses the question itself as unimportant. For example, one might say that anyone can be a journalist, and it is not worth arguing over who gets to call themselves a journalist. One is skeptical about attempts to define journalism.

Empirically, there is a more systematic and careful approach to the question. We can look at clear examples of journalism over history and note the types of activities in which journalists engaged, e.g. gathering information, editing stories, publishing news and opinion. Then we use these features to provide a definition of journalism that separates it from novel writing, storytelling, or editing information for a government database. 

The normative approach insists that writers should not be called journalists unless they have highly developed skills, acquired usually through training or formal education, and unless they honor certain ethical norms.

The skills include investigative capabilities, research skills, facility with media technology of media, knowledge of how institutions work, and highly developed communication skills. The ethical norms include a commitment to accuracy, verification, truth, and so on.

The normative approach is based on an ideal view of journalism as accurately and responsibly informing the public. One defines journalism by considering the best examples of journalism and the practices of the best journalists.

A writer who has these skills and these ethical commitments is capable of publishing good (well-crafted, well-researched) and ethically responsible journalism. Persons who do not meet these normative requirements may call themselves journalists but they are not considered journalists from this normative perspective. They are at irresponsible, second-rate, or incompetent writers seeking to be journalists, or pretending to be journalists. 


Anonymity is accepted more readily online than in mainstream news media. Newspapers usually require the writers of letters to the editor to identify themselves. Codes of mainstream media ethics caution journalists to use anonymous sources sparingly and only if certain rules are followed. The codes warn journalists that people may use anonymity to take unfair or untrue “potshots” at other people, for self-interested reasons. 

Online, many commentary and “chat” areas do not require anonymity. Online users resist demands from web site and blogs to register and identify themselves. Anonymity is praised as allowing freedom of speech and sometimes helping to expose wrong doing. Critics say it encourages irresponsible and harmful comments. Mainstream media contradict themselves when they allow anonymity online but refuse anonymity in their newspapers and broadcast programs.

The ethical question is: When is anonymity ethically permissible and is it inconsistent for media to enforce different rules on anonymity for different media platforms? What should be the ethical guidelines for anonymity offline and online?

Speed, rumor and corrections

Reports and images circulate the globe with amazing speed via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, cell phones, and email. Speed puts pressure on newsrooms to publish stories before they are adequately checked and verified as to the source of the story and the reliability of the alleged facts. Major news organizations too often pick up rumors online. Sometimes, the impact of publishing an online rumor is not world shaking – a false report that a hockey coach has been fired. But a media that thrives on speed and “sharing” creates the potential for great harm. For instance, news organizations might be tempted to repeat a false rumor that terrorists had taken control of the London underground, or that a nuclear power plant had just experienced a ‘meltdown’ and dangerous gases were blowing towards Chicago. These false reports could induce panic, causes accidents, prompt military action and so on. 

A related problem, created by new media, is how to handle errors and corrections when reports and commentary are constantly being updated. Increasingly, journalists are blogging ‘live’ about sports games, news events, and breaking stories. Inevitably, when one works at this speed, errors are made, from misspelling words to making factual errors. Should news organizations go back and correct all of these mistakes which populate mountains of material? Or should they correct errors later and not leave a trace of the original mistake –what is called “unpublishing?”

The ethical challenge is to articulate guidelines for dealing with rumors and corrections in an online world that are consistent with the principles of accuracy, verification, and transparency.

Impartiality, conflicts of interest, and partisan journalism

New media encourages people to express their opinion and share their thoughts candidly.

Many bloggers take pride in speaking their mind, compared to any mainstream reporters who must cover events impartially. Many online journalists see themselves as partisans or activists for causes or political movements, and reject the idea of objective or neutral analysis.

Partial or partisan journalism comes in at least two kinds: One kind is an opinion journalism that enjoys commenting upon events and issues, with or without verification. Another form is partisan journalism which uses media as a mouthpiece for political parties and movements. To some extent, we are seeing a revival (or return) to an opinion/partisan journalism that was popular before the rise of objective reporting in the early 1900s.

Both opinion and partisan journalism have long roots in journalism history. However, their revival in an online world raises serious ethical conundrums for current media ethics. Should objectivity be abandoned by all journalists? Which is best for a vigorous and healthy democracy – impartial journalism or partisan journalism?

To make matters more contentious, some of the new exponents of opinion and impartial journalism not only question objectivity, they question the long-standing principle that journalists should be independent from the groups they write about. For example, some partisan journalists reject charges of a journalistic “conflict of interest” when they accept money from groups, or make donations to political parties.

Economically, mainstream newsrooms who uphold traditional principles such as impartiality increasingly feel compelled to move toward a more opinionated or partisan approach to news and commentary. To be impartial is said to be boring to viewers. Audiences are said to be attracted to strong opinion and conflicts of opinion.

Even where newsrooms enforce the rules of impartiality — say by suspending a journalist for a conflict of interest or partial comment — they fail to get full public support. Some citizens and groups complain that newsroom restraints on what analysts and reporters can say about the groups they cover is censorship.

Is it good, that more and more, journalists no longer stand among the opposing groups in society and try to inform the public fairly about their perspectives but rather become part of the groups seeking to influence public opinion?

The ethical challenge is to redefine what independent journalism in the public interest means for a media where many new types of journalism are appearing and where basic principles are being challenged.

Entrepreneurial not-for-profit journalism

The declining readers and profits of mainstream media, as citizens migrate online, has caused newsrooms to shrink their staff. Some journalists doubt the continuing viability of the old economic model of a mass media based on advertising and circulation sales. 

In response, many journalists have started not-for-profit newsrooms, news web sites, and centers of investigative journalism based on money from foundations and donations from citizens. Some journalists go online and ask for citizens to send them money to do stories. This trend can be called “entrepreneurial journalism” because the journalist no longer simply reports while other people (e.g. advertising staff) raise funds for their newsroom. These journalists are entrepreneurs attempting to raise funds for their new ventures.

The new ventures raise ethical questions.

How independent can such newsrooms be when they are so reliant on funds from a limited number of donors? What happens if the newsroom intends to report a negative story about one of its main funders? From whom will these newsrooms take money? How transparent will they be about who gives them money and under what conditions?

The challenge is to construct an ethics for this new area of journalism.

Reporters using social media

Many news organizations encourage their reporters to use social media to gather information and to create a “brand” for themselves by starting their own blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account. However, online commenting can put reporters, especially beat reporters, in trouble with their editors or the people they comment about, especially if the news outlet says it provides impartial reporting. For example, a reporter who covers city hall may report dispassionately in her newspaper about a candidate for mayor. But on her blog, she may express strong opinion, saying the candidate is an unlikeable and incompetent politician. Such comments would give the candidate cause to complain about the lack of impartiality of the reporter. 

The ethical challenge is to develop social media guidelines that allow reporters to explore the new media world but also to draw reasonable limits on personal commentary.

Citizen journalists and using citizen content

One of the difficult “horizontal” issues, noted above, is whether newsrooms should keep all types of journalists to the same editorial standards? For example, should citizen journalists be required to be balanced and impartial? Can journalists who operate a newsroom’s web site report on a story before their colleagues, the print reporters? In other words, should print reporters be held to a higher standard of pre-publication verification?

Furthermore, as newsroom staff shrink, and the popularity of online news grows, organizations are increasingly able, and willing, to collaborate with citizens in covering disasters, accidents, and other breaking news. Citizens who capture events on their cell phones can transmit text and images to newsrooms.

Newsrooms need to put in place a process for citizen-supplied material, which may be bogus or biased. How shall sources be identified? How much vetting is necessary for different sorts of stories? Should citizen contributors be made aware of the newsroom’s editorial standards?

The ethical question is whether it is possible to construct a media ethics whose norms apply consistently across all media platforms. Or are we faced with the prospect of having different sets of norms for different media platforms?

 Copyright Stephen Ward 2014 

Excerpted from Digital Media Ethics on Media Morals, with permission from Stephen Ward.

Stephen Ward

Stephen J. A. Ward is a media ethicist, educator, and author based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Interim Director for the Organization of News Ombudsmen.


Launch of Mediamorals.org

by Stephen J. A. Ward

The field of journalism ethics is fragmented.

We make a difficult transition from a pre-digital media ethics that was professional and mainstream to a digital media ethics that is professional and non-professional, online and offline.

Digital technology and media have undermined a previous consensus on the aims and principles of journalism. There is hardly a question or concept – from what is journalism to the idea of objectivity – that is not challenged by new values and new ways of doing journalism.

Nothing short of a radical reformation of media ethics will allow the field to once again be relevant to the new global and interactive practices of journalism today. We need to work towards what I call a radical media ethics of global proportions.

Amid this revolution, I launch www.mediamorals.org as a place to discuss and analyze the state and future of media ethics locally and globally. The website is called “Media Morals: Supporting Responsible Journalism Around the World.” It aims to promote responsible democratic journalism through analysis of leading issues.

The shape and content of the site is a work in progress.

I have created and directed academic sites for journalism ethics. But this site is more personal. Much of the analysis is my perspective on media and the state of its ethics. I will blog and tweet. Moreover, I will ask others to analyze trends and issues.

The launch features one of the first systematic codes of ethics for global media, based on principles that I have developed over several years.

Wendy Swanberg, a journalism historian and former news producer in Madison, WI., is managing editor of the site. She also writes a column on free press issues. Most recently, Swanberg worked with me to create the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The site has resources pages – background and history on everything from the idea of media ethics to the growth of global journalism ethics. I hope these pages are useful to students, scholars and members of the public.

I am asked who my intended audience is. The answer is simple: Potentially, everyone. In an age when almost anyone can publish, ethics is the study of media norms for everyone, literally. No longer is media ethics a specialty interest for professional journalists. Media ethics has escaped the confines of professional organizations and is now an open, global dialogue.

Therefore, this site is intended to be accessible to anyone interested in media ethics. The writing will be clear and not weighed down by jargon and dense theory.

Finally, my viewpoint is global. I see our new media ethics as inescapably global is viewpoint, in principle and in aims. The original media ethics was an ethics for a media that was not global. The codes of ethics were, and continue to be, parochial, defining the duties of journalism only in terms of a city, a region or a nation.

What happens to ethics when journalism becomes global in reach and impact? This site will discuss this question and put forward some response and new principles.

I will not campaign for certain political ideologies or groups. However, I am not a neutral observer. I engage the issues from my liberal democratic perspective.

This is not a site for “hot talk” or partisan tirades. There is more than enough of that form of journalism in the public sphere. What our democracy needs is dialogic journalism – media spaces where people can frankly but respectfully discuss events and key issues.

The site will attempt to be that sort of media space.

Copyright Stephen J.A. Ward, 2014