Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Be cautious of anyone introduced as a journalist

I'm working on an entry about a proposal to preserve the newspaper industry with subsidies, and I couldn't help but notice that one of speakers was simply introduced as a "journalist."

Unlike a doctor or lawyer, there is no accreditation process for journalists. Anyone with a keyboard and a habit of speaking loudly can call himself a journalist. It doesn't mean they work for a media company like a newspaper or broadcast station.

The "journalist" label implies a sense of fair-handedness and impartiality, but that doesn't describe a lot of the people introduced as journalist today.

The popular definition of "journalist" is so broad and open-ended that it includes anyone who collects and presents information. I've seen a lot of cases where social activists introduce themselves as journalists. Social activists work to promote a specific world view, and it's dishonest to present them as anything else.

Even politically biased news sources, like MSNBC and Fox News, employ actual journalists who put real effort into presenting the different sides of an issue fairly. They don't always succeed, but it's a world apart from some of the stories published in the activist press.

There's no reason someone can't be both an activist and do reporting, but they should be upfront and honest about what they represent. Instead of being introduced as a journalist, why not try try "journalist from The Nation" or "journalist with the Socialist Party USA" to give a clue about what sort or organization they are associated with.

I was all set to give Naomi Klein partial credit for labeling herself as an activist and a journalist, instead of just a journalist. However, I checked the bio on her web site and found it simply fit the formula.

"Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the New York Times and #1 international bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism."
Anyone who's even vaguely familiar with Klein knows she's an anti-globalization activist. There's no reason to believe that she sets out to present what multiple sides of an issue really believe. In fact, she does the opposite.

There is a better way to introduce these people. The profile page for Huffington Post contributor Jesse Larner* does not introduce him as a journalist, but as a writer on politics and culture. This is the correct way to go about these things, as there's no implication that Larner is shielding his own perspective, biases, opinions and beliefs.

Beware when someone is interviewed and you see that lone little "journalist" tag under their name with no media company attached. That doesn't mean they're lying or distorting details, but it does mean that you should Google their name to see what their real credentials and allegiances are.

*Larner shared the Cato Institute link in the previous paragraph during an e-mail exchange, so feel free to criticize me if I sound like his publicist here.

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