Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Who Is A Jourmalist?

LOOKING OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN - Looking over on one side we can report cars zooming about their daily business along Pacific Coast Highway, and looking in the opposite direction we can see the crash of the waves from the Pacific Ocean on the rocks along the cliff, and reporting from this windy scene one wonders, what makes one a journalist?

What follows is a musing that is part, what is a journalist, and part, how to become a journalist (hint: it is not all that difficult and there is no real mystery behind it).

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A question mark with a circle around it. No question about it. This is used under a Creative Commons license.

In an era of news micro-blogs, regional blogs and national blogs the question arises, who is a journalist? Many, not all, of those in the "old media" businesses of television, radio and newspapers have been very quick to say that, "bloggers aren't journalists!"

Well, (and before we go forward let us be clear that we are not addressing or attacking any specific "old media" organization or particular person) let us think about that statement for a second, "bloggers aren't journalists."

When talking about bloggers and journalists the first question to ask is, what makes a journalist a journalist? Are you a journalist if you are apart of a newspaper? Anchoring the five o'clock news reading a teleprompter? Or, typing up a factual, triple fact checked story on your laptop sitting on the tan sands of the beach and publishing it in a blog?

The now defunct, yet briefly successful sister blog to this site, The Southern California News Wire, ran into some resistance as some in the "old media" seemed baffled that somebody being the first to report many crime and fire stories in the middle of Anaheim cannot possibly be a journalist. (Yes, the old News Wire erroneously reported a local high profile television personality was let go from their job. Despite three sources that said it was true it turned out not to be true. To all future bloggers and journalists, mistakes happen and sometimes sources burn you, or these high-up, trusted sources get it wrong. Some in the "old media" ran with this mistake and loudly declared that this is why "bloggers aren't journalists.")

It is one thing when a doctor or nurse says, "reading WebMD doesn't make you a doctor or nurse," but for those who say that "bloggers aren't journalists," well, what gives you the right to say such a statement? 

In America you need special training, and a license to show you really understand that special training, if you want to become a doctor, or lawyer, or a dentist.

In fact, from selling real estate, driving a taxi, cutting hair to flipping burgers, you need some kind of formal government license or permit, be it s municipal and/or state license or permit, to perform those tasks (California requires you to have a food handler card if you flip burgers). Frankly, there are many occupations that may seem like the most mundane job in the world, but require some type of government license or permit for you to do that job.

Our society has done a very good job creating bureaucracy, and sometimes obtaining these licenses and permits all so you can make a honest living can be a very Kafkaesque experience. Despite our government's love for bureaucracy it is interesting that journalism and being a journalist is something you do not need any license or permit to practice. Why, well, a free press is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. So, really, anybody can be a journalist, but if you want to be taken seriously, or seriously enough, as a journalist, then you need a shred of credibility. Sometimes the best way to find that credibility is putting a blog together and getting your work and name out there in the world. The credibility will come to you.

Many bloggers are not unlike Benjamin Franklin when he owned and operated his newspaper. After all, most blogs are not all that different from the newspapers and broadsheets during and after our country's founding. This is a way of saying, and perhaps arguing, blogs have a historic precedent going back to the 18th Century.

You may be wondering, "What about those reporters who go behind the police tape to report on a story using their press pass?" In most media markets there are press passes, but it is extraordinarily important to stress that those are not formal government licenses or permits to practice journalism, but rather, for lack of a better term, "self-policing" so authorities know you are who you say you are. Now, if you are a blogger (this is where that shred of creditability comes in) you can apply for a press pass. Remember, some bloggers have been granted access to The White House and the political conventions.

Even if the powers that be are not too keen on issuing a blogger a press pass there is nothing to stop the neighborhood blogger from going down to the scene of a crime, talking to some people, officials, turning into the scanner for updated information and taking photographs from behind the police tape with the public. Furthermore, if you already have a blog then you can direct a watch commander or public information officer (PIO) to your blog that shows you are not simply somebody claiming to be a blogger. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who claim to be bloggers, but when push comes to shove (sometimes literally) you can show these powers that be you are the real deal.

In our hyper-tech age most law enforcement and fire agencies already have information on their website and on their social media accounts. A lot of what you see and hear on most television news are mostly rewritten press releases.

If you receive a press release on an incident you can, for example, take it a step further and interview people in the neighborhood and businesses, and get their perspective on what occurred. Perhaps these interviews can lead to something more than what is on the press release. Maybe you will be the blogger that uncovers a major scandal in the neighborhood.

It is one thing to report on a crime, fire or other such disaster, but nothing stops the blogger from being an investigative journalist. Whether you are a journalist working for a major news organization with a name that ends in Times, or a citizen who feels, and perhaps down right knows something is rotten at city hall, you have a right to go through the paperwork and let the world know about it. One of the big tools you have to help you is, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Sometimes if it is a big enough story that gains national attention the "old media" will contact the blogger for more information and credit them (ask us how we know). 

Sure, there are a lot of journalism programs at universities awarding everything from associate degrees to doctorates that will teach you all about the ways of being a journalist, but, unlike wanting to be a doctor or lawyer, you really do not need any special training to be a journalist. In fact, journalism school as we know it today was mostly a post-war invention. There are only three things you really need to know if you decide to become a blogger/journalist, and that is, "the five W's", the who, what, when, where and why; knowing how to write and communicate well enough; and understanding the rules of libel and slander.

If you do decide to start your own blog it is highly, well, strongly encouraged, you read up a little bit about libel and slander. In many ways libel and slander are journalism's built-in safeguards to make sure the journalist knows what the hell they are doing, and that what is being reported on television, the newspaper or blog is correct.

Pretty much since America's founding the United States Supreme Court (The Court) has mostly clarified and expanded freedoms when it comes to the rights of the press.

Now the one legal gray area bloggers face have typically been at protests, crime scenes, brush fires or other such disasters, where law enforcement orders crowds to disperse, and bloggers are arrested for failing to disperse and not having a proper press pass.

There could be a variety of reasons why bloggers may not have a press pass, but as bloggers show up and attempt to report on a news event this may eventually put The Court in an awkward position.

As bloggers become more prolific and as more people rely on bloggers for their news it is not out of the realm of possibly that just who is, and is not, a journalist may cause a constitutional crisis. 

There may come a day where a blogger is arrested for being at the scene of a major event, and the said blogger goes to court suing for their right to be at the location to report on it as a journalist, and in time the case finds its way to The Court. Well, the awkward position for the Supreme Court may be the day they have to decide if a blogger is a journalist, and IF The Court ever has to decide that question they will essentially be deciding who is a journalist, and who is not a journalist. More to the point, The Court in many respects will be deciding what is, and is not, considered to be the free press.

Are blogs and bloggers protected under The First Amendment? From the "strict constitutionalist" to "the Constitution is an evolving document" crowd all nine Supreme Court justices are going to have a tough time answering this question. In its history even the most conservative Supreme Court has generally been for expanding press rights and not inhibiting the press.

While there have been some in the "old media" who say "bloggers aren't journalists," (all while sourcing blogs and social media during breaking news), as it stands now, and probably for a very long time to come, there are no legalities when it comes to saying who is and is not a journalist. There are no laws against, preventing or prohibiting you from starting a blog that covers your neighborhood, city or county.

As long as your facts and information are correct, and if something is incorrect just correct it and own up to the fact, and there is no issue with libel and slander, there is nothing stopping you from becoming a journalist.

So, to answer the question, anybody can be a journalist.