How to Tell a Journalist from a Blogger
A couple days ago, I was forced to make the distinction between journalists and bloggers in a long-winded defense of “the Fourth Estate.”
I only touched on this subject briefly:
I have to apologize on behalf of my entire profession for how you have been treated by a few bloggers, whom I’ll have the tact to not name here. There are bloggers who know and care nothing about real journalism, who see this profession as an opportunity for short-term gain at anyone’s expense, who find no joy in it and who dream only of fame in the now and a lucrative exit thereafter. These people are not journalists; they are self-serving scum. And they’ve royally fucked up how a lot of people see my profession.
The aftermath of that post suggests I definitely need to outline what makes a journalist a journalist.
You see, it doesn’t really matter what medium you use. You can be a print journalist, a radio journalist, a television journalist, an online journalist — journalism exists in every form of communication. If we were stripped of all media, there would be oral journalism. And as communication continues to evolve to include new forms of media, journalism will evolve along with it.
I’ll say at the outset: A journalist is not distinguished by the medium of his or her publication.
What, then, are the tell-tale signs of a professional journalist?
I thought you’d never ask. =)
1. A journalist is trained in journalism.
Whether in the hallowed halls of higher learning or in the less-hallowed halls of a professional newsroom, the journalist has been trained as such. The journalist’s work has been pruned mercilessly by the red pens of professors, peers, and editors.
A bachelor’s degree in journalism, media studies, mass communication, or some similarly named program along with at least a few years under the tutelage of editors is the best preparation for calling oneself a journalist.
A blogger might have a ton of general writing experience and even a degree in English or something along those lines, but — and this is a critical distinction — a writer per se is not a journalist. Not any more than a keyboardist is a concert pianist or a mechanic is a nuclear submarine technician. A journalist belongs to a specialized, technical subset of the writing professions that requires specific training. As one who has edited many a writer who attempts journalism, I can tell you the differences are vast — not simply niceties and nuances.
2. A journalist’s work is not overly precious to him.
As part of this journalistic training, you get accustomed to having your work ripped to shreds and watching whole paragraphs get shaved in column inches from the bottom of your articles — if you wrote it correctly and you’re lucky, it’ll be the bottom.
As a result, you do not get offended when your editor tells you, and I quote, “Jolie, this sentence fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” (Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb) You begin to look at your writing the way a stranger would. You see the errors, the ugliness, the factual haziness, the sloppy turn of phrase. And you or your editor make repairs as needed without much fuss.
These words aren’t your limbs, your children, your masterpieces. They’re simply another grouping of column inches or another few hundred words to fill up the “news hole.” You’re not married to them, because you’ll be on to a new collection of words within an hour or two. With any effort, the next article will be better written than the last as you quickly learn from your mistakes.
The blogger is an autonomous creature, not accustomed to being under the scrutiny of a professional editor. He hasn’t had his work and soul trampled quite as mercilessly — although commenters can be cruel bitches, it’s true — so he’s a bit more attached to his words. Also, his words are more frequently tied to his personal ideas. More on that in a bit.
3. A journalist refrains from opinion in news stories.
Objectivity is a word oft-repeated in journalistic circles. The journalist strives for this: Neutrality, freedom from bias, absolute truth, facts unsullied by emotion. We cannot settle for “both sides of the story.” We must tell all sides of the story, and we must represent each side fairly regardless of our individual beliefs and views.
When this is the goal, getting your work hacked to bits by an editor becomes a lot easier because, as previously mentioned, you’re not married to the ideas themselves.
On occasion, the journalist will deviate from writing news stories to writing column or opinion pieces. In the more clean-cut days of print journalism, there was such a thing as an op/ed page; readers understood that opinion and editorial pieces expressed the view of the writer rather than the pure facts. This was the one page of the paper where you’d see the word “I” outside of quotations from other sources.
The journalist, when writing news, never editorializes, never opines, and never uses the first person.
The blogger is more wont to allow “news” writing to be colored by opinion. As a non-professional, at least in the early days of blogging before electronic publications were considered press, the news cycle came to bloggers secondhand. At that point, opinion and analysis were all that was left to add. For that reason and for others (having to do, I would imagine, with injecting colorful commentary to boost traffic), news blogs tend to include a great deal more commentary and opinion than we’re used to seeing in journalism. This can be a good thing in some cases and a bad thing in others; however, the formally trained journalist is not given to over much editorial content.
4. A journalist attributes quotations and cites sources.
One of the first lessons you learn in J-school is that “common knowledge” doesn’t count as a source, and everything must have a source.
Did it rain 5 inches yesterday? According to whom?
Was the city budget cut? According to which documents? At what meeting? By which persons?
Is a certain chemical bad for the environment? What experts say so, and what studies prove it?
In keeping with the standards of objectivity, no fact can make it into print without having a firm attribution to some source outside the newsroom. Attribution along with objectivity are almost inviolable commandments, and the professional journalist is hard-pressed to cross them. Attribution in the digital age amounts to linking back to the source when a digital source is available.
The blogger, on the other hand, can play fast and loose with “everybody knows” logic and refer to the omniscient “They” as a source of statistics or other knowledge. And linking back is seen as optional, since many bloggers would prefer to claim information as their own and silo pageviews and PageRank on their own domain.
5. A journalist is obsessed with the Truth.
As mentioned in a few sections above, journalists love the facts. They might be surprised when facts disprove a belief they hold, but they will not likely be too upset or go hunting for other “facts” to disprove the first set.
Much as in science, you’d use available data to find an answer rather than to prove and answer you already had in mind, the journalist presents the facts as they are without manipulating them into a foregone conclusion. Behind this obsession with data and facts — for many journalists, myself included — is the idea that the Truth will set us free.
The blogger, who isn’t necessarily committed to objectivity or other journalistic standards, will certainly attempt to shed light on the facts as he or she sees them; however, without years of training to beat down one’s own personal bias, it’s almost impossible to see data other than through the lens of one’s beliefs.
6. A journalist serves the people.
It cracks me up (a.k.a. pisses me off) when a supposed journalist says he is trying to help a company, no matter how small or scrappy, by posting an article about that company.
A journalist’s calling is to inform and serve the Third Estate — that is, the people with little or no power or influence in this world. Not politicians, not capitalists, not moral or religious leaders. In telling all sides of a story for the benefit of the proletariat alone, it is often the case that some companies and some individuals will also profit, at least to the extent that they operate in the best interest of the masses.
Journalists are accordingly called upon to be doubly skeptical (in the original sense) as compared to the average citizen. They’re not only looking out for their own best interest; they’re also attempting to safeguard that of their fellow human being and, when necessary, warn him of possible danger.
The blogger serves himself first and has no real social imperative in most cases.
7. A journalist is a skeptic (and often a critic).
Journalists get a bad rap for being a bunch of negative, cynical, jaded hardasses. And we’re supposed to be.
Part of the objectivity and vigilance of the profession entails seeing so many sides of so many stories that you lose the ability to take anything at face value. You don’t trust any source implicitly; you don’t accept a fact as such until it’s proven.
If a news writer has done any news editing, he is not only a skeptic but also a critic. You very quickly begin to seek out the flaws in writing and in life so they can be perfected immediately and concisely.
These attitudes make journalists cranky. And also alcoholics.
Bloggers, on the other hand, can often be nice people. They are not to be trusted.
But seriously, a blogger might question or attack a company, person, or bit of news; but to do so as a journalist requires a bit more detachment. The skepticism of a journo is disinterested and objective; it exists solely to ensure that the Truth emerges unscathed into the light. It’s not a matter of personal vendettas or profiteering.
8. A journalist cares about form.
At the outset, I told you the journalist isn’t a writer; he is a technician.
Technicians care about technique.
In addition to the finer points of grammar (and journos have got to care about those, since their writing has historically gone into irrevocable print), a journalist will care about style, which can vary by publication. Because of the mechanics of media production and consumption, the journalist also cares about the order in which information is presented.
The blogger is a technician of a different sort, and journalists would do well to pick up some of the blogger’s techniques. For example, the blogger typically knows more about metadata, web traffic, social sharing mechanisms, and SEO — the very techniques that have paved traditional media’s biggest speed bump on its path into the digital age. But mastery of digital techniques does not a journalist make.
9. A journalist isn’t a spy or a snitch.
It’s true that some of the wildest, most dramatic stories in the annals of this trade have revolved around the divulging of secrets. Watergate, for example — that required some first-class leaking and espionage.
But the workaday journalist gets maybe a few of those stories in his lifetime. Journalism is not an exciting merry-go-round of overheard deals and eavesdropping in antechambers — or, to put a more modern spin on it, hacked accounts and leaked documents. If it were, journalists would be universally mistrusted and would never get invited to any parties, which make up a significant portion of our food-and-drink budgets as journalists’ salaries are generally low.
This is where bloggers have fucked over journalists more colossally than I can comfortably express.
A couple bloggers posing as journalists spied, snitched — and did so in a way that benefited almost no one except the bloggers themselves — and now all producers of media are painted as untrustworthy vultures.
The true journalist relies on deep knowledge of his beat, close relationships with industry experts, and dedication to his craft. He has the kind of skill that makes for a 20-year career in reporting, not the kind of childish sneakiness that makes for a one-time pageview blockbuster.
10. A journalist is passionate about journalism.
Finally, and most obviously, the journalist loves journalism. He may complain about it, but you aren’t likely to find him changing careers any time soon. He cares not just about his job but about his profession, and he will defend its ranks from the amateurs who sully it.
The blogger will invoke the word “journalism” and call himself a journalist, but he has no understanding of what those words mean. It’s one thing to wax poetic about “hard-hitting journalism.” It’s another thing to use the Inverted Pyramid, develop and adhere to a style guide, work with PR people with some kind of integrity, develop features and breaking news stories separate from opinion and editorial, and generally conduct oneself as a journalist.
A blogger touting his love for journalism is like a high school choir girl saying she loves opera: She might be sincere, but she’s got a hell of a lot to learn.
If you’re a blogger and you’ve been offended somehow by my piece, ask yourself why — I highly suspect it’s because I called some behavior of yours out as not being “journalist-y” enough. While it’s true that we all hold ourselves to different professional standards, the above are pretty basic. If you feel threatened or attacked by what I’ve written, I suggest you get back at me by taking a couple journalism classes at a community college and doing an internship at a local newspaper; it’ll change your writing and your life.