The term “journalism” can mean very different things to different people. As such, you will often get a wide range of responses when you ask a group of people to define “journalism.”
For example, you can define “journalism” as a product. Under this view, an investigative news story about the mayor taking bribes might be treated as “journalism” because the product (an online article) contains certain things thought to be journalistic, like a clear headline and quotes from multiple interviewees. Similarly, that story might be treated as “journalism” because it appears on a television show that looks a certain way — maybe it has someone dressed professionally sitting behind a long table describing the incident — or follows certain linguistic patterns.
“Journalism” can also be defined in terms of the people who are involved in the creation of a news product. If something is produced by a certain kind of person, perhaps someone with a college degree in Journalism or some related form of professional training, then some people might treat their work as “journalism.” In some countries, people have to be recognized (or certified) by the government in order to legally produce “journalism” or receive certain legal protections.
Similarly, “journalism” can be defined in terms of the institutions that create such products. If something is produced by a particular kind of organization, such as The New York Times or BBC News, then some people will treat that product as a form of “journalism.”
More broadly, “journalism” can be thought about as a set of activities through which news is collected, organized, presented, and circulated. For example, someone might believe something to be “journalism” only if it involved first-hand observation by the would-be journalist, or interviews with multiple witnesses. That person may also require all accounts to be subjected to verification practices by the would-be journalist.
Even more broadly yet, “journalism” can be understood as a service that is guided by certain goals and values, such as identifying issues that are important to a community and holding elected officials to account, or connecting citizens with opportunities for civic engagement. From this perspective, “journalism” is less about what the product looks like, who made it, or how they made it, but rather about what one hoped to accomplish through their endeavor.
Finally, “journalism” can also be understood as an occupation that is bound together by a particular ideology spanning different elements of product, people, practice, and service. For example, in the United States, this might entail values like seeking to provide a public service to citizens; striving to be objective, fair, and trustworthy; working independently from governmental officials; being committed to an approach that emphasizes gathering first-hand accounts of events in a timely fashion; and deferring to a shared, professional sense of ethics. In other contexts, that ideology might be different. For example, the ideology may instead seek to promote societal stability by having journalists be more deferential to government authorities and less critical of the status quo. Those who act in line with the dominant occupational values of journalism within a society — whatever that may look like — may thus be seen as practicing “journalism.”
As we can see, there are many ways to define “journalism.” Not only do different places and different groups of people within those places often understand the term differently, but those same places and groups have also understood it differently through history.
What this tells us is that journalism is a fluid and contested thing. Changing social, cultural, economic, political, and technological conditions change how people understand journalism. For example, technological advances have made it possible for a kindergarten teacher to regularly blog about their city’s public Board of Health meetings to a large online audience — in effect, arguably allowing that teacher to perform acts of journalism in ways that were not previously possible.
This matters because the way journalism is broadly understood within a society impacts how symbolic resources are translated into material rewards. For example, think about a press conference or a trial that has limited seating. Some of those seats may be reserved for those who practice journalism. To determine who is eligible for those seats, someone has to first define what “journalism” is.
In many societies, journalism also receives a special social status as being the authority on “news.” You can see evidence of this in the way journalism is enshrined in foundational documents and legal protections of some countries. For example, in the United States, the First Amendment protects a “free press” because of its presumed importance to a well-informed democracy.
With such status comes expectation, and perhaps even deference, from individual citizens and the broader public. For example, if someone considers The New York Times to engage in journalism but does not consider Fox News to do so, then they will typically hold The New York Times to a higher standard when the Times makes a mistake. At the same time, they will be more likely to give the Times the benefit of the doubt when that someone can’t independently verify some reported information themselves. Put another way, that someone is effectively granting The New York Times a degree of legitimacy that they are not granting Fox News because of how that someone understands journalism.
The consequence of this is that it grants the individuals and organizations that are perceived to be legitimate brokers of journalism considerable power as they are deemed to be authoritative by some group of people. That, in turn, allows those organizations to become the primary definers of “news” for that group. This is why different news organizations, commentators, and public figures expend so much energy casting some things as journalism and other things as not-journalism (sometimes with disparaging labels like “fake news”).
Although we have talked about “journalism” in the singular form, it is important to recognize that journalism is not some monolithic thing. Thus, one could very easily talk about journalisms — that is, journalism in a pluralized sense.
For example, we often hear about “sports journalism,” “data journalism,” and “advocacy journalism.” These prefixes refer to more than just genres or technologies. They recognize that there is something substantively different about that particular rendition of “journalism,” whether in its purpose, people, processes, or products. Those differences, in turn, result in distinct symbolic associations, material rewards, and social expectations within that area of journalism. Put another way, what is considered to be desirable practice within one area of journalism — like adopting a neutral tone or using an inverted pyramid story structure — may be considered undesirable in another. As such, there is no one “right way” to do journalism, but certain ways are privileged over others in particular contexts.
These definitional challenges and considerations thus help us to appreciate that “journalism” is actually a very dynamic and multifaceted thing.
Journalism can be defined in many ways, which means that “journalism” is a contested term that means different things to different people.
In the U.S. and many liberal democracies, journalism is associated with certain occupational values that stress a public service orientation, objectivity, independence, immediacy, and professional ethics.
How journalism is generally understood within a society matters because it affects how symbolic resources are translated into material rewards and expectations.
There is a plurality of journalisms (e.g., “data journalism” and “advocacy journalism”), each with distinct norms, values, and processes. This points to a recognition that journalism is not a single, monolithic entity.