When the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee reluctantly took up the task of defining journalism, it struggled, at first, to find a way forward. Then, writes Patrick Brethour, it stumbled on a solution: define what journalism is not. The result: three simple tests, one tentative proposal.
By Patrick Brethour
There’s an old story about an artist who was once asked how he created such wonderfully life-like sculptures.
It’s quite simple, he replied. When sculpting a fish, I look at the marble and just take away the bits that aren’t fish.
The CAJ Ethics Advisory Committee took that philosophy as an inspiration in fashioning a working definition of journalism.
We struggled at the start, caught up in the familiar crosscurrents that typically muddy such efforts. Is blogging journalism? Does journalism necessarily entail a public-service ethos? Is the latest Lady Gaga update journalism or voyeurism? Around and around we went.
Then we stopped debating what journalism was, and began thinking about what it wasn’t -- we began chipping away at our block of marble.
Our discussions took on new vigour, and velocity. We began with the obvious examples of non-journalism: press releases. What is it, we asked, that makes them, however well crafted, not journalism? Answer: They are written for the purposes of advancing an interest.
What is it, we asked, that makes academic writing, however disinterested, not journalism? Answer: Such writing is for a narrow audience, and is crafted accordingly with an expert vocabulary for an expert readership -- methods at odds with journalism.
And what makes raw audio or video footage, or a transcript, however disinterested, however comprehensible, not journalism? Answer: There is no creative act.
Through several rounds of discussion, we arrived at something approximating a fish, a tripartite definition of journalism that centred on: (1) a disinterested purpose; (2) the act of creation; and (3) a particular set of methods.
The purpose of a work of journalism, we decided, is to combine research and verification with the creative act of storytelling: journalists inform; they don’t propagandize. All journalism involves both original creation and methods that specifically strive for accuracy and fairness.
All three conditions must be met for an act to qualify as journalism. A brilliantly argued piece of polemic that excluded the views of the opposing side of the issue would fulfill the second condition, and possibly the first, but fail on the third. Failing to seek verification, or at least differing perspectives, is not journalism.
A quick news tweet -- Breaking news: President Barack Obama announces his support for gay marriage -- could succeed on all three counts. Presuming that it proceeds from a position of disinterest, this tweet would, within severely limited time constraints, fulfill the journalistic method, and would qualify as a creative act. But merely retweeting these words would be insufficient; our definition demands that journalists do more than repeat what’s gone before; they add new work, such as providing context or seeking rebuttal, once the opportunity arises.
We were careful not to embed particular values in our proposed definition. What may seem frippery to some (hello, Lady Gaga) will meet the tripartite test. Other, more seemingly substantive pieces -- political partisans arguing their parties’ positions -- will not.
This is, quite deliberately, a definition based on behaviours, rather than states of mind. Nor have we attempted to create a list of which particular activities do and do not constitute journalism. Instead, we are proposing a framework – something that can be used to map out the boundaries of journalism as the digital revolution redefines the craft.
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