Ink-Stained Wretch?

Seeking clarity on who should call themselves a journalist.

Shortly after Pfc. Bradley Manning’s conviction for divulging classified information to WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, the Washington Post editorial board, the institutional voice of a newspaper that famously published the top-secret Pentagon Papers, found itself in the uncomfortable position of applauding the guilty verdict.

“The website WikiLeaks, which published the raw material provided by Mr. Manning as well as other secrets, differs from journalism in methods if not goals,” the board reasoned. Others vehemently disagreed, among them James Goodale, counsel for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case.

Goodale argues that Assange is, in fact, both a journalist and a publisher, one who is being unfairly targeted by the White House. “You may not like Assange, but wake up! The First Amendment is really going to be damaged,” he told fellow reporters during a recent public radio interview.

The lack of consensus on WikiLeaks speaks to larger questions faced by news organizations in the digital era, says MU’s Edson Tandoc, Jr., a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism. Specifically, who gets to call themselves a journalist? And, perhaps more to the point, whose publishing activities are deserving of the protections afforded journalists? “New technology has increased access to mass communication for many people, but simply having the ability to communicate on a large scale does not make a person a journalist,” says Tandoc.

Tandoc and his coauthor Jonathan Peters, an assistant professor at Dayton University, reviewed scholarly texts, legal documents, and membership criteria for professional organizations to get a sense of how “journalist” is currently defined. Their findings, published this fall in the Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, yielded this definition: “A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating news and information to serve the public interest.”

They admit, however, that focusing on employment can be problematic. This because it potentially excludes those engaged in new forms of communication, such as unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists, who otherwise gather, process, and disseminate news and information on matters of public concern. “In defining who a journalist is, the focus should be on the nature and social purpose of the activities that individuals engage in,” says Tandoc.

The study was published this fall by New York University’s Journal of Legislation and Public Policy.

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