What, exactly, is journalism?

Ivor Shapiro

Ivor Shapiro

This question is not as simple as it may appear, and its answer is needed now more than ever.

So argues Ivor Shapiro, chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto in a recent article in Journalism Studies (February 2014).

He points to “today’s rapidly democratizing news ecosystem” in which the lines have become increasingly blurred between journalists and the consumers of journalism, and between journalists and their comedic counterparts such as Jon Stewart. The need for a definition also arises because the notion of a free press demands that courts protect certain practices.

But even academics in “journalism studies” have been content to do without a definition, he adds.

Shapiro favours a definition of journalism rather than of who is a journalist. “A truly ‘functional’ definition,” he says (using the term ‘functional’ literally as “relating to the way in which something works or operates,” per the Oxford English Dictionary), “should not drive a wedge between professional/mainstream and that of amateur/alternative authors, but rather between journalism and such paradigmatically different activities as public relations, entertainment and content aggregation.”

“Journalism comprises the activities involved in an independent pursuit of accurate information about current or recent events and its original presentation for public edification.” – Ivor Shapiro

After reviewing previous defintions and describing their limitations, he identifies five key activities or elements of journalism:

  • Its subject matter is current or recent events;
  • It has a broad audience;
  • It aims for factual accuracy;
  • It is independent ‑ the information is being published, broadcast or otherwise presented because of its perceived interest to the audience rather than to achieve a particular outcome for journalists, their employers or their sources; and
  • It is original work.

From those five elements, Shapiro devised the following definition: “Journalism comprises the activities involved in an independent pursuit of accurate information about current or recent events and its original presentation for public edification.”

While his own definition has some weaknesses, it “seems a worthwhile start for further discussion,” he said.

“Progress toward a consensus description should eventually help courts resolve difficulties in addressing news media-specific issues such as confidential sources and libel privileges and, specifically in Canada, help to embolden jurisprudence that (unlike judgments to date) put flesh on the bones of the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s guarantee, not just of freedom of expression but, specifically and distinctly, of ‘freedom of the press and other media of communication,’ ” Shapiro writes.

“At the same time, this progress would be useful to journalists themselves in giving a comprehensible account of their professional activities, and in earning accreditation where it may be deemed useful either for practical reasons or reasons of principle.”

I’ll deal with the importance of accreditation, and particularly in the context of covering medical conferences, in a future post. In the meantime, thanks to Ivor Shapiro for advancing this subject.~TM

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