Who is a journalist anyway?

By Alan SunderlandJournalism Advocate, Fourth Estate

It all began when Federal Police in Australia started raiding the homes and workplaces of journalists in pursuit of alleged wrongdoing. 

Before too long, all Australian media organisations were uniting to condemn the raids as an unprecedented attack on media freedom, and demanding changes in the laws to better protect public interest journalism.

As the public furore grew, the Government blinked, announcing a parliamentary inquiry into the issue. At the same time, they issued a “directive” urging police to think carefully about media freedom before undertaking any further raids. 

Finally that inquiry is now underway, with the leaders of Australia’s major media outlets uniting to demand change, even as police continue to stand firm and defend their actions. 

Now, pardon me if I remain cynical about the prospects that this inquiry will deliver any real change. Unless the Government is prepared to contemplate significant and fundamental reform that clearly establishes a basic right to media freedom in Australia and a genuine exemption for public interest reporting and good-faith whistleblowing, no amount of “directives”, fine words and glib reassurances will achieve anything.

But in the midst of all the hand-wringing and public angst, another familiar issue has once again reared its head, and it is this side issue that I want to talk about here.

When public hearings into the state of media freedom in Australia got underway, almost the first issue raised by politicians was this:

If we are going to consider granting greater freedoms and greater protections for journalists, how do we know who the journalists are?

I am not in the business of generally praising politicians of any stripe, but that is in fact a very good question, and it deserves a proper answer.

It used to be simple. A ‘journalist’ was self-defining and required no particular reflection. If you had a job working for a news organisation and reporting the news, you were a journalist. Of course, depending on the quality of the news outlet that employed you, you might be considered a good journalist or a bad journalist, a responsible and careful reporter and analyst or an ambulance chaser and muckraker. But a journalist was someone who was employed to report the news. End of story.

These days, it’s much more complicated. Anyone can hang out their shingle in the public marketplace and claim to be a journalist. There are few, if any, entry barriers. So the question becomes a very pertinent one – if we are going to give journalists a degree of status, protection and freedom not afforded to everyone, who gets to qualify for that special status? Who is a journalist, as opposed to just someone with an opinion and a ‘hot take’ on the events and issues of the day or, worse, someone with a vested interest and a barrow to push?

Despite having spent 40 years working for mainstream media organizations, I am not one of those who would argue that only the mainstream media gets to earn special status and the privileges that attach to media freedom. Those days are gone, and I see no reason to bring them back. Equally, though, I don’t think it is enough to just go with the notion that “I am a journalist because I say I am a journalist”.

My work as an Editorial Director, setting and maintaining editorial standards over many years, leads me to a pretty obvious answer to this question, one that opens up the world of journalism to all comers while at the same time meaning that a few well established media outlets might find themselves in some difficulty in trying to meet the entry requirements.

So here goes…

A journalist is anyone who:

1. Operates according to the fundamental principles of ethical journalism, as set down by a recognised journalistic code of ethics;

2. is genuinely accountable in relation to their adherence to those ethics; and

3. genuinely engages with and represents the community it serves.

If you go and check out Wikipedia it will tell you there are at least 242 different journalistic codes of ethics around the world – I suspect there are more. But they all, at their heart, share a common commitment to a few key overarching principles – accuracy, impartiality, fair and transparent engagement and a commitment to reflecting an appropriate diversity of perspectives. Fourth Estate itself is in the process of drawing up an editorial code of its own, and it will reflect these fundamental principles. 

But none of that counts for much unless the journalists living by that code are publicly and transparently accountable. That means, at the very least, having an open and clear process enabling the public to complain if standards are not being met, and being committed to investigating and taking action on any breaches. Best practice means having that process operate at arms length from the journalists themselves. Accountability builds trust, and demonstrating that the ethical code is more than just words is essential.

And finally, no matter how well crafted and well enforced an editorial code is, true journalism serves the community it is part of. Not a vested interest or a lobby group or a set of specific policy goals, but the community. That means a journalist needs to be engaged with the community, listening to them and reflecting on their needs, their questions and their best interests. Only then can journalism serve its basic purpose, which is to inform the community on the issues that matter to it.

The more modern journalism can find ways of embedding a genuine commitment to editorial standards in its business models and working arrangements, the more it will be in a position to demand from governments and those in power the freedoms and rights to which it is entitled.

Alan Sunderland
Journalism Advocate for Fourth Estate