In my youth, with considerable naiveté I believed that writers were born, not made. As I matured and began writing for a living, I realized that anyone can LEARN to write…the real writers are the ones who can learn to do it WELL.
So let’s talk about writers, particularly the breed of writers called journalists. We know that there are professional journalists and amateur/hobbyist journalists. There are “killing trees” (print) journalists, and 500-channels-of-blahblahblah (tv) journalists and then there are digital (blogging) journalists. Is there a difference? Should there be? Does it even matter?
Anyone can call himself a journalist…it’s a bit like being fired and immediately calling yourself a “consultant.” As far as I’m concerned when it comes to really qualifying as a legit journalist it’s a question of ethics and ethical adherence. As the authors in Blur (Kovach, B and Rosenstiel, T. 2010) often opine there are many different flavors of journalism and journalists these days and the picture gets more blurry all of the time.
Writing in the Center for Journalism Ethics (2015), Stephen Ward’s description of the fast evolving journalism landscape mirrors my own when he says; “our media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace. Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users.” What’s a poor hapless reader to think? More on that in a sec.
I had an assignment this week that included a review of the Oconee County Observations (OCO) website. You can check it out here:
Basically it is a fairly dry straightforward recap of the governmental goings-on in Oconee County, Georgia. ICYMI Oconee County is home to some 35 thousand souls (Quick Facts, 2015) including the OCO website author, Lee Becker. Dr. Becker is a one very scholarly academic dude who boasts a B.A. in Journalism, an M.A. in Communication and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. (Cox International Center, 2010)
That’s some serious journalistic background right there. So, can we can consider him a journalist. Ummm, YEAH.
But the sheepskin doesn’t make the man a journalist. Becker is a journalist because of his adherence to the ethics of journalism. In my view a journalist is a writer who adheres to the ethical standards of journalistic behavior. It doesn’t have much to do with which or how many colleges he has attended.
Just for yucks (and because I’m brain dead from trying to figure out formatting for my first research paper in 35 years) I thought I’d compare Becker’s own writing and reporting standards with that some acknowledged pros.
Take a look at the summary of good journalism published online by The American Press Institute:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
- Its first loyalty is to citizens
- Its essence is a discipline of verification
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
- It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
- Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
- Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news
Remember the old overhead projectors we used at school back in the day? The teacher could overlay one transparent sheet with another to quickly demonstrate the similarities and differences between two pages.
Okay, keep visualizing that and read Becker’s own standards. Here is what he writes:
MY STANDARDS FOR OCONEE COUNTY OBSERVATIONS
- This is a news blog, following in the established tradition of the newsletter.
- I am a citizen of Oconee County. My experiences and aspirations for the county have influence on what I post here.
- I strive to be accurate, fair and transparent.
- I want to offer a balanced presentation that reflects events and discussions, using links to document what is known.
- I want to offer a balanced presentation that recognized different points of view and portrays the people involved with respect.
- I want to tell how I learned what I have learned and be clear about any role I have played in what is being presented.
- Comments are encouraged. I attempt to apply the standards of accuracy, fairness and transparency to them as well.
See what Becker did there? Don’t his standards look great when overlaid with that of the pros? I think so. BTW, I also find the fact that Becker publishes his standards down the side rail of the OCO is no small matter. Becker does not refer to himself as a journalist, but he doesn’t need to. His standards are so solid that they make him a journalist in every important way.
The Society of Professional Journalists document their own code of ethics in four categories. (SPJ Code of Ethics 2014)
- Seek Truth and Report It
- Minimize Harm
- Act Independently
- Be Accountable and Transparent
There is no question in my mind that the Ocononee County Observations does that and more. And I’m intrigued that Becker has no more bias than he admits to in his standards, he wants what is best for the county. What a novel and fully disclosed concept!
Additionally, although I find it beside the point, the legal winds are also blowing in Becker’s favor. The courts lately seem to find that bloggers should be offered the same protection as professional journalists. Ronald Coleman wrote in an article called Bloggers, journalists, reporting, and privilege that in a recent New Jersey decision…a Superior Court judge ruled that a blogger acting as a journalist was protected by that state’s journalist’s shield law. (Coleman, R. D. 2014) Based on my review of the OCO I’m dubious that Becker is going to be in need of shield laws, but if you need a little more convincing then the fact remains that judges also seem to legitimatize bloggers as journalists.
As I pointed out earlier the website it a recap of the things happening in the Oconoee County Government. You gotta give the guy big props. Judging from the frequency and depth of his posts, his truthful transparent references to questions or issues he has raised himself and his comment moderation he is doing a terrific job of covering his “beat.”
He gets personal kudos from me too because this is just not very interesting stuff to write about. A bit of a snooze unless you live in Oconoee County but likely pretty hot stuff if you live there. You go Doc!
I was asked if “non-professionals” can show good judgment, assemble information for balanced stories, and build up credibility? Yes, and Dr. Becker is a perfect example.
Frankly, the good doctor has me thinking that more journalists of every ilk should publish their own standards and goals…maybe that’s what the poor hapless reader should demand.
Coleman, R. D. (2014). Bloggers, journalists, reporting, and privilege. Computer and Internet Lawyer, 31(3), 9-17. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1501614725?accountid=3783
Cox International Center (2010) Retrieved from: http://www.grady.uga.edu/coxcenter/Administration/Lee_B_Becker/Lee_Director.php
Dean, W. The Elements of Journalism. (2015) Retrieved from: http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/
Kovach, B., and Rosenstiel, T. (2010). What We Need from the Next Journalism. Blur. pp. 174. New York: Bloomsbury
SPJ Code of Ethics (2014) Retrieved from: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
Quick Facts. (Oct. 14, 2915) Retrieved from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/13/13219.html)