Last month, the Crystal Cox verdict re-energized a debate among journalism’s most passionate and articulate thought leaders and professionals by begging the question: Who is a journalist?

Just about anyone with a laptop or cell phone can use free technology to create quality media and reach audiences larger than any newspaper or television network. Indeed, we are all publishers now. But are we all journalists now, too?

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Never has technology unraveled an industry so fast that its professionals no longer agree on what it is that they do. It’s not surprising; the sharp line between journalist and non-journalist is so faded that few can see it anymore.

If someone happens to be at the right place at the right time and captures a significant event on his cell phone, it will be newsworthy to some audience. At the moment he tweets the image, does he magically transform from a bystander into a journalist? If he is an employee of The New York Times, most would have little trouble classifying him as a journalist. But if it also was his very first uploaded photo, then really what is the difference between the NY Times employee and the bystander? Who is the journalist?

Thought leader and colleague Dan Gillmor insists we’ve been asking the wrong question:

The way we frame this discussion is important. When anyone can publish, I’m often asked, who’s a journalist, anyway? That’s the wrong question, I believe. The vastly more relevant issue is this: What is journalism?

In other industries, the problem would resolve itself once the technological chaos subsided and a new world order emerged. Journalism doesn’t have that luxury. The Crystal Cox case again highlighted what is at stake: the special legal protections that allow journalists to do their collective jobs. At the other end of the spectrum is the charming sentiment that everyone is a journalist.

One Less Journalist

In a recent popular article, GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram  asked the question: ”If we are all journalists, should we all be protected?

I reject the premise. We are not all journalists. In fact, I may be the only remaining person in America who is not a journalist, despite making some of the same motions: I’ve been blogging since 1995 (when the creator of WordPress was still in elementary school); I’ve written and published scores of papers and articles; I’ve worked for a few major media companies, and spent a few years on the faculty of the Cronkite School of Journalism. Yet I am certain that I am not a journalist.

Being formally educated in engineering, business and behavioral economics puts me about as far as you can get from the field of journalism. Perhaps for this very reason, my outsider’s perspective might add some unique fuel to this debate.

First, I commend journalists on one unexpected bit of subtle collective behavior: Despite  witnessing the rapid demise of newspapers and broadcast news industries,  journalists — far more than any profession — have been particularly welcoming of the new class of content creators and publishers. Any other industry would have branded them as amateurs and interlopers — blogging, tweeting or uploading on YouTube. Journalists have joined the newcomers in embracing new media, experimenting and extending journalism’s frontiers without any class distinctions.

Other professions, especially those being affected by new technology, typically close ranks and erect many kinds of barriers to protect their closed societies from newcomers fast-tracked by technology.

Not so, with journalism. Journalists seem to be genuinely happy that technology allows everyone to participate in their craft.

But this virtue is also the heart of the problem.

Why does it matter?

Journalism and journalist: Many argue that the definitions don’t matter. As long as my activities and their effects are the same as a professional journalist, and I am “committing an act of journalism,” then I too am a journalist, they argue. Sooner or later, we either must agree on definitive answers or forever throw our hands up and declare: “It doesn’t matter.”

It matters. The Crystal Cox case reminds us that journalists need special protections, as a part of their work, to ensure their sources remain confidential. Occupy Wall Street represents countless examples where journalists are granted special access. Do we grant self-described “citizen journalists” access to the White House? Travel along with Air Force one?

As long as there needs to be special protections and privileges, it matters. As long as there is a need for standards of quality and ethics for journalists, it matters. And because it matters, we need to define “who is a journalist,” and by logical extension define “what is journalism?”

Other Professions

As an engineer, I’ve seen my field(s) disrupted and again empowered by technology that is cheap, available and easy to use. There were loud objections to technologies in the hands of “non-engineers” (for instance, not everyone is thrilled with the prospects of journalists coding sophisticated software and web applications).

Despite the proliferation of easy-to-use tech tools, certain fields of engineering (as with medicine and law) are still subject to rigid standards and licensing in order to determine who can represent themselves as a member of these professions. We immediately can see the logic: Few people would want “citizen physicians” performing brain surgery, nor would we want merely any techie with a working knowledge of AutoCad to be building drawbridges or passenger planes.

In most cases, the professional standards are determined by the leaders and working professionals in these fields, and recommended to the licensing boards. All the certifications require academic degrees, rigorous exams, and a track record of apprentice-like work (e.g., residency) before one is granted the special rights and privileges that comes from being a recognized professional in these fields.

Why should the qualification of journalist be any less clear cut or less rigorous?

And yet, journalists seem to pride themselves on inclusiveness and lauding the category of citizen journalist.

Gillmor and his contemporaries stress the “acts of journalism” define the journalist. Intuitively, this seems to make perfect sense, but it certainly doesn’t apply to any other field. As one person (Craig R) commented in response to Ingram’s article: “Journalism is a trade, one that is learned through cadetships, training and study. I just painted my bedroom at home, that does not qualify me to be a painter.”

And yet another (Rick Gregory) pointed out: “Short answer? We’re not all journalists. Longer answer … if the term covers everyone with a pulse it has no meaning.”  

People from all sides of the debate seem to agree at least that some definitions are needed. Today there seem to be three camps, or “theories“  for trying to define journalism and the modern journalist.

The ‘Infinite Monkeys’ Theory

If I take enough video or photos, eventually I might capture something an audience might find newsworthy. For instance, if I am constantly shadowing the police with my camcorder rolling, I may capture an officer treating a suspect harshly — fodder for a “caught on tape” abuse story. For the first 100 hours, I am just a annoying stalker, until I get that 30 seconds of video — then am I a journalist? Before the first 100 hours, how is one to know the difference?

This camp maintains that the result is the defining evidence. If an accidental journalist happens to tweet important breaking news because his house happens to be in the flight path of a rescue mission, should he be afforded the same rights and protections as the professional journalist?

The emphasis of this theory is on the relatively skill-less talent of being at the right place and time — blogging or taking enough video until you capture something noteworthy: pretty much the same strategy employed by anyone who has ever posted a cat video.

As journalists, perhaps you can set the bar a little higher?

The ‘Magic Hat’ Theory

While the Infinite Monkeys Theory defines the journalist only by the outcome of a relevant journalistic act, it does so regardless of the intent, the skills or work ethic. But very often we need to identify the journalist before the start of the journalistic act, or before the result is published.

New media technology has nearly eliminated the practical requirement that someone needs an affiliation with a publisher in order to be considered a journalist. Thus, anyone with a free WordPress account can “hang a shingle” and call themselves a journalist and publisher. Once this person puts on the magic hat of “journalist,” or uses an injket to print a “press badge,” how does one know the difference between the journalist and the non-journalist?

Once someone puts on the magic hat of journalist — are they magically qualified to write about anything or anyone as an expert and with impunity?

Most other professions that affect the public’s well-being have a higher bar to guard against self-described practitioners — in order to maintain a higher quality of standards and ethics.

The citizen journalists camp is often with the Magic Hat Theory — where anyone with a business card can call themselves a journalist.

As journalists, shouldn’t the bar be a little higher?

The ‘Anointed Priests’ Theory

Here, the title of journalist is bestowed by the government or some other authority. From then on, every journalistic action is under special protections and enjoys special privileges.

I am pretty sure my journalist friends would quickly point out the First Amendment threats apparent in the Anointed Priests Theory. The prospects of having some committee or board dictate journalism would send some of them running to the Second Amendment to prevent this from happening. But these fears would be overstated. Being recognized by an “authority” as a journalist would not prevent anyone from creating content or publishing — it would only determine who has special legal protections. And regardless of whether anyone wants this, by default, it is the way our system works today — except that the authority is a legislature or a judge.

But the Anointed approach doesn’t have to be a court, a government or even a small committee. Many other professions have formal peer review processes that serve the same purpose. The Bar association is a perfect example. The scientific community in almost any field has peer review systems that serve similar functions. Why not for journalism? Even bartenders and auto mechanics have some official requirements to pass before becoming a professional.

I get it. Even the remote possibility of blacklisting and censorship keeps journalists awake at night. But an official designation of some kind would also serve to provide a standard of ethics, integrity and quality — giving the newcomers some standards and the courts a unified criteria for identifying journalists. As we were reminded recently, if journalists don’t re-sharpen that line that separates the professional journalist from “other,” then the courts will continue to do it for them.

We already have a model for peer reviewed “certification” for journalists. Most journalism schools are accredited by a board that’s composed of journalism educators and professionals. They define the standards and requirements for graduating a student with a degree that says “journalism.”

I am not suggesting that the journalism degree be the official legal designation for journalist. Arguably most of history’s greatest journalists never had a journalism degree, but this was during an era where the publisher defined the journalist, when working for a newspaper, broadcast radio or TV network defined the journalist.

Today, journalists are no longer exclusively defined by their relationship to a publisher — despite the many courts still clinging to this anachronistic definition. If journalism is “in the eye of the beholder” then soon the definition gets too diluted to have meaning. Journalists are still guardians and champions of freedom of the press. You should collectively, assertively and quickly define the profession of journalism. If not you, who else?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Lichfield Live.