traditional journalism


EXHIBIT A: In Australia, media organizations are joining forces in an unprecedented campaign to expose current attacks on a free media and demand better protections. However, the response in many quarters is to accuse journalists of being elitist and out-of-touch, of demanding to be above the law while ignoring the very communities they serve.

EXHIBIT B: In the United States, dozens of websites are springing up that seem at first glance to be local news sites, but in fact have political and business links that raise all sorts of questions. Is there really journalism going on here?

EXHIBIT C: Journalists, many of whom used to have paying jobs in traditional news outlets, are now going it alone and forging new ways of doing journalism that defy old patterns and old business models. But are they still 'professional' journalists entitled to the same protections as the so-called 'mainstream' media?

Three separate issues in different corners of the globe, but there's a common thread here. Fake news, news with a range of different agendas, news delivered outside of the normal structures of the journalism 'industry'. And, at the same time, demands from journalists that the public recognise the special role they play and provide them with the protections and support they need.

We can no longer side-step the urgent question that is being asked around the world: if journalists are to be protected, who gets to call themselves a journalist?

It is an issue I have discussed here before and the answer inevitably comes down to a question of ethics. If you want the protections of journalism, you have to abide by the editorial and ethical standards of journalism. That means a commitment to accuracy, to a thorough and careful weighing up and presentation of the facts, to independence and accountability, and to the pursuit of the public interest.

So far so good, but what if someone claims to meet all of those ethical criteria but they do not work as a professional journalist? Equally, what if they do work as a professional journalist but show no interest in upholding those principles?

In Australia, where I live and work, the rare occasions where journalists get a degree of special protection are based on the following definition of a journalist in Section 122.5(6) of the Criminal Code:

"a person engaged in the business of reporting news, presenting current affairs or expressing editorial or other content in news media"

Many thoughtful commentators like former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste (imprisoned in Egypt for over a year for the 'crime' of doing journalism) have rightly pointed out that this kind of definition offers a path to recognising and protecting 'acts of journalism' rather than 'journalists', and that's true as far as it goes.

But there are two words that immediately throw up barriers for those outside the traditional world of the major news organizations. Would-be journalists must be involved in the business of reporting news, and they have to have their work appear in the news media.

What does that mean in practice? Too often, it means that unless you are employed by a major media organization you are out in the cold. For many people in the communities that journalism serves, that is no longer good enough.

It results in journalism being seen as a closed shop, a cosy club for the elite and powerful, while those truth-seekers and truth-tellers outside that club are left out in the cold.

I would argue that if we really believe the defining characteristics of 'acts of journalism' are the editorial standards they abide by and not the person doing them or the organization they work for, then we have to work harder to make that true in practice.

We have to envisage a world where anyone who is engaged in reporting the news while holding themselves to the ethics and accountability of journalism is entitled to protection under the law, and then think about ways of making that world real. 

Solving that problem has the twin benefits of preventing unethical and sub-standard journalism done by major media organizations from gaining protections it doesn't deserve, while at the same time ensuring that ethical and principled journalism done outside the normal news industry gains the protections that it does deserve.

It doesn't mean affording the protections of joournalism to those who engage in spin, activism, one-sided opinion or biased campaigning, but it does mean encouraging and supporting an improved public discourse, where those who seek to uncover and expose the truth can be protected when they do so by acting ethically.

Now I am the first to admit that there are a great many practical problems to solve in achieving this: How can these standards be enforced? Who gets to decide? What are the non-negotiable fundamental principles that form part of all journalism?

But there is a simple first step that we can take along this path, and its one that Fourth Estate is currently taking. We can develop and share a simple ethical code that is open to anyone who wants to do journalism to adopt, a code that doesn't rely on having employment in the news media or making a living as a journalist or being part of a journalism union or guild as a pre-requisite.

The more we share such a code, the more we argue about it and discuss it and decalre ourselves committed to it as a way of working, the more we put the fundamentals of public interest journalism front and centre in the debate, the more we will come to recognise and appreciate what journalism is and why it needs to be protected, regardless of who is doing it.


Alan Sunderland
Journalism Advocate
Fourth Estate





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