On journalistic privilege and privileged journalists

My latest for Al Jazeera English is on the Senate’s attempt to define who is a “journalist” in the aftermath of Wikileaks. Under the proposed law, a journalist will be “an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information … [who has been] employed for one year within the last 20 years or three months within the last five years.”

I find this problematic for a number of reasons:

The debate over who is a journalist is a debate over journalistic privilege. But in a prestige economy, the privilege to protect the confidentiality of sources is not the only privilege at play.

Journalism is increasingly a profession only the wealthy can enter. To narrow the definition of “journalist” to those affiliated with established news organisations denies legal protection not only to organisations like WikiLeaks, but also to the writers and bloggers who cannot afford the exorbitant credentials and unpaid internships that provide entry into the trade.

“The journalists who can tell my story – the story of urban or inner-city America – have taken a job in marketing while disseminating their opinions on blogs,” writes freelancer David Dennis. Since the recession began in 2008, racial diversity in the media has declined while gender imbalance has remained high. The bloggers to whom Dennis refers would have no legal protection under the Senate’s definition.

Whom would the Senate’s definition protect? Journalists employed at established publications, who are mainly white men from privileged backgrounds – a category of people who may have little interest in critiquing the establishment that benefits them. The Senate’s definition of journalist protects the people who need it least.

Read the whole thing, Who is a ‘journalist’? People who can afford to be, at Al Jazeera English.

In other news, a few upcoming talks and a new column:

  • From Sept 25-27, I’ll be in DC to speak at a George Washington University workshop on “Media and Democratization in Post-Soviet Nations”. I’ll be talking about Uzbek dissident online media and politics.
  • On October 24, I’ll be giving at talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on “How (and Why) to Write for the Public”.
  • I will be writing a monthly column for Vitae, a new section of the Chronicle of Higher Education focused on academic and post-academic careers. Their writers include Rebecca Schuman, William Pannapacker, Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In), and Josh Boldt (Adjunct Project). Over the past year, these four writers have transformed the conversation about working conditions in academia so I am happy to be joining them.
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7 Responses to On journalistic privilege and privileged journalists

  1. Patty says:

    Would love to attend talk at University of Illinois. May public attend?

  2. jaykirell says:

    I think your issue is more with diversity in newsrooms than it is in defining what it means to be a journalist. Anyone can call themselves a writer or reporter, because that’s just basic skills anyone can practice. Being a journalist requires training in both the skill and functions of a writer/reporter, but also the ethics involved to judge how to remove your own inherent bias from your writing/reporting. You learn that at a credible journalism school.

    Since there are going to be new legal issues around the 1st Amendment in the age of digital media, trying to legally define what it means to be a journalist is important, not only for the federal government, but also the industry of journalism as a whole. Because there are going to be times when National Security and Freedom of the Press collide.

    Eventually this Senate definition will be challenged in the Supreme Court, and America will really get a definitive answer on what really constitutes a journalist.

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