Ironically, journalists -— a group normally reluctant to theorize —- are today up to their ears in definitions, a favorite activity of philosophers.

For some time, journalists and their associations have been trying anxiously to define “journalist” and “journalism” as a media revolution blurs the differences between professional journalists and citizens.

I have some bad news for this definition-making industry.

No rigorous and widely supported definition now, or in the foreseeable future, is likely to emerge from this row over who is a journalist. Better, I would advise, to explore the deep sources of the definitional disagreement and look for a new way to view journalism.

To put my point in the form of a slogan, I say: “Do ethics, not definitions.”

Practical pressure

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy and used here with Creative Commons license.

Normally, when a practice is fragmented, we concede it is not the right time for arguing over its definition. There is little basis for agreement. But the urgency for definition in journalism is due to practical problems.

Many American journalists seek a definition so judges know who falls under the protection of shield laws—laws that allow journalists to not reveal their sources. The debate has circled around proposed definitions of “journalist” in the U.S. Senate, where a shield law is debated.

In Canada, the ethics committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists produced a report that defined journalism for “a variety of practical reasons,” such as access to closed-door court hearings and seats in press galleries.

What many definers agree on is that the focus should be on “acts of journalism,” offline or online. A definition should not focus on who the journalists are, for whom they work or their form of publishing. The Society of Professional Journalists, in an effort to include online and other new forms of journalism, has even considered changing its name to the Society of Professional Journalism.

Yet a focus on acts of journalism has not produced a solid definition that most responsible practitioners could accept.

Ethics as interpretation

Photo by niclas and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by niclas and used here with Creative Commons license.

I recognize that practical issues may force us to concoct definitions. But my skepticism about this project as a whole has three sources.

First, I am a definition skeptic when it comes to social practices. I think clear concepts are crucial to practice but rarely do the concepts come in the form of succinct definitions. Social practices are historically evolving things. They are too varied and amorphous for spelling out, logically, their “necessary and sufficient conditions.”

Journalism is the name for a loosely linked set of activities that eludes strict definition. Historically, about the only thing that all journalists have had in common across centuries is publishing news and commentary for a public on a regular basis.

But the lack of definition is no tragedy. Lots of things, like the notion of a game, are too complex for definition. People can effectively carry out a practice, or play a game, even if they are stumped when a precise definition of their activity is demanded.

My problem is with this demand. It is based on the questionable expectation that a definition is both possible and necessary. It probably isn’t, on both counts.

Second, we often incorrectly describe what people are looking for when we say they need a definition. What they usually want is not a definition, such as an empirical description of what journalists normally do—as if we were observing creatures in the wild. Rather, they want to talk ethics. They want to talk about what a journalist ought to do. Sometimes, they put their views in the form of a definition, such as, “a journalist is a responsible public communicator who is accurate, fair, impartial” and so on.

In reality, this is not a neutral, factual definition. It is an ethical interpretation (or theory) of journalism. However, this type of definer is on the right track. Discussing what is good journalism is the most important issue, not squabbling over a definition.

Third, and finally, I worry that our definition work consumes us, deflecting us from deeper disagreements and issues. Why?

Interpreting practice

Because the basic element of journalism ethics is not a definition.

It is what I call our implicit (or explicit) “normative interpretation” of journalism practice. Normative interpretations are found everywhere. We look at the shared practices of a profession, such as law, accounting, or journalism and we try to say what the purpose of the practice is. We depict the practice in its best light—its ethical and social purposes. In light of these purposes, we say what norms should guide the practice.

Normative interpretations are more basic than definitions. Normative interpretations influence how we approach journalism, what values we endorse, who we think are good practitioners and what activities we consider to be good examples of the practice. They are complex systems of values that elude easy definition.

Many interpretations of journalism have been constructed, historically: the partisan interpretation, the libertarian interpretation, the watchdog interpretation, the communitarian interpretation.

At any time, a practice will have greater or less agreement on its normative interpretation. The more disagreement, the more fragmented the enterprise. Today’s definitional dispute in journalism is a symptom of a deeper disagreement on its moral interpretation.

How did journalists get into such a mess?

It began in the previous century when one normative interpretation came to dominate North American journalism. Mainstream journalists in the United States and Canada had a virtual monopoly on providing news and views to the public. They worked in similar newsrooms practicing their craft in similar ways.

How did they see their practice in its best light? The interpretation, outlined in codes of ethics, said: such a powerful class of communicators should see themselves as professionals serving the public interest. The public can trust them to the extent that their reports are impartial, accurate, unbiased, objective and independent. Neutral informing is the prime purpose, not advocating or interpreting.

Democratization of Journalism

Professional journalism ethics was born.

Now, enter the Internet and new publishing technologies, circa the late 1990s.

The democratization of media undermined the mainstream’s information monopoly. It created rival practices with rival normative interpretations. Some interpreters revitalized old ideas, such as partisan and advocational journalism. Internet enthusiasts developed a new libertarian view of the Net as a true marketplace of ideas.

This clash of interpretations explains my skepticism.

Where there is no shared normative interpretation of a practice, agreement on definition is unlikely. The problem is not that we can’t produce a definition of journalism. The problem is that there are too many definitions. The problem is that we can’t agree on any of them.

The only way out of this impasse—if there is a way out—is to seek a new normative interpretation of the place of journalism in today’s global and multimedia world. We need a radical re-think of journalism and its ethics, a re-think that integrates old and new values.

Is integration possible? Maybe not. Maybe Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together. Maybe we have to live with the fact that journalism will remain fragmented for years. In any case, there is no going back to the old ethics without change.

I prefer a more positive depiction of our situation. We should attempt to create a new ethics for a new era, a mixed media ethics that can garner wide support. In the meantime, we should not let the legal and other practical disputes over “journalist” and “journalism” blind us to the fundamental ethical causes for the disputes.

We need to do ethics. That is, we need to engage journalism ethics at the fundamental level of principle, purpose and social philosophy.

Stephen J. A. Ward is Professor and Director of the George S. Turnbull Center in Portland, Oregon. The center is the Portland base of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Previously, he was the first James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also has been director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is the founding chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.