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Exactly what is a ‘journalist,’ anyway?

The term ‘journalist’ gets thrown about fairly casually these days. There’s a good reason.

We have mobile journalists and citizen journalists and the widespread opinion that, with the presence of social media, anybody can be a journalist.

You no longer need to own a printing press, although that helps. You can be a blogger with a half-dozen readers. You can post your opinions to Twitter and Facebook. You can publish links to interesting stories.

Does that make you a journalist?

It depends.

Have you ever read the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics?

Do you have your own standards of professionalism? Have you had any training, experience, mentoring or anything else that might lead you to believe you’re a journalist?

Well, here’s the thing. In the United States and much of the rest of the free world, none of that matters.

You can call yourself a journalist. Be a journalist. Practice journalism. Write. Photograph. Shoot video. Publish. Podcast. Sell advertising or subscriptions or obtain grants, if you want.

There is no license to obtain, no test to pass.

You don’t have to register anywhere, or seek permission from anybody. You may write (or say) anything you want.

It’s good to have skills — writing, reporting, photography, design. And it’s good to have standards — accuracy, fairness, honesty, truth.

But a journalist, ultimately, has only one thing: credibility. When that’s gone, all the talent and resources and gumption in the world won’t mean much.

And a great thing about the ability to call yourself a journalist is that you’re responsible to no one but yourself (or your employer, should you have one).

That means you face the consequences of what you write or say.

That can be as extreme as death, arrest or imprisonment. It can mean lawsuits over slander or libel. It can mean ridicule or criticism or insults.

So that’s why I’ll always argue that while anybody can call himself a journalist, not everyone who does, or is labeled as much by others, fits the definition.

You must do something to merit the title. You must show that you have met at least a minimum requirement of the profession. (Did you do anything to confirm that story before you passed it on? Did you make any inquiries about who those people are and what they were doing before you posted that photo?)

While the ease with which people may publish today has changed the business of journalism, it has not changed the standards of journalism. We have not fought for and defended the privileges granted us under the First Amendment without recognizing the responsibilities that it puts upon ‘the press.’ We do not take those responsibilities lightly just because the opportunities are plentiful.

One more thing: Having opinions does not make you a journalist.

In fact, one of the traits of a true journalist that I respect the most is the ability to report fairly on issues about which the journalist does have strong opinions. Having strong opinions should open you to consider the complexities of an issue, not blind you to them.

Injecting opinions into a story, like selectively choosing facts or quotes or anything else that tends to slant a story away from the truth, creates the cracks that begin to weaken the writer’s credibility. And like I said, credibility is really all you have.

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