Credit: Lilli Carre

What the hell is a journalist anyway, and why should we need to define one? A journalist, says one of my daughters, making me swallow hard, is someone you can believe is trying to tell you the truth. So yes, the question matters philosophically. And as we’ll see, it matters to the courts.

But a practical definition has become so elusive I’m not sure one exists. If once it could at least be said of journalists that we know them when we see them, time, tides, and technology have made the question “What’s a journalist?” a good one to leave for the Mad Hatter.

Yet it’s at the heart of the hostilities between Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school and Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez. Their fight hinges on whether Medill Innocence Project students were acting as journalists or partisan investigators when they dug into the murder conviction of Anthony McKinney. As Alvarez sees it, if they published their findings they were journalists and should enjoy the protections of the Illinois Reporter’s Act; if, instead, they shared them with McKinney’s attorneys, they weren’t and shouldn’t. The wrangling’s gone on for close to two years now and it’s made major headlines—Northwestern turned on Innocence Project founder and director David Protess, accused him of deception, and drove him out of the university. But it hasn’t been settled.

The Illinois Reporter’s Act is one of the many well-meant laws written by legislatures around the country to shield reporters from snoops with subpoena power like Alvarez. As any law must that singles out a class for benefits, it tries to define the class. A reporter, says the act, “means any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained.” As recently as the turn of the century that definition might have sufficed, though it deftly begs the question of what is news? The news, whatever that was, was something dispensed by an identifiable priesthood. If journalists didn’t bring you the Word you didn’t get it.

But journalism is well into its reformation. These days everyone’s a priest. God’s lips are to everyone’s ears.

New journalism is no longer the inchoate mystery it was, say, five years ago, and the Economist just published a 16-page special section devoted to it: “Bulletins from the future.” We’re seeing the end of mass media as we knew it, says the Economist—media that postures as, and sometimes actually is, high-minded and “objective.” Plenty of today’s MSM journalists think journalism was always thus, but it actually was thus during only a brief era that’s ending. “Technology is in many ways returning the industry to the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era,” says the Economist. For instance, in 1776 the newspapers of the American colonies “had small, local circulations and were a mix of opinionated editorials, contributions from readers and items from other papers: there were no dedicated reporters. All these early media conveyed news, gossip, opinion and ideas within particular social circles or communities, with little distinction between producers and consumers of information. They were social media.”

That was the press the Bill of Rights was written to protect. And it’s the journalism—”supercharged by the internet”—we’re returning to. “The biggest shift is that journalism is no longer the exclusive preserve of journalists. Ordinary people are playing a more active role in the news system.”

What I notice about the Economist report—a good piece of work all in all—is how it flits around the topic of who’s a journalist without ever landing squarely on it. Discussing the legal peril WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, find themselves in, the magazine comments, “WikiLeaks seems to be hoping that by calling itself a news organization it will be protected by the First Amendment. The ‘about’ page on the WikiLeaks website, which used to describe the organization as ‘an excellent source for journalists’, has been rewritten to describe its activities as journalism, its staff as journalists and Mr. Assange as its editor-in-chief.”

Absurdity lurks here. WikiLeaks does what it doesit reveals stuff, including state secrets. Why should what it does be better protected by one semantic mantle than another? Anthony McKinney must also be shaking his head. I’m rotting in prison and I’m innocent, he’s thinking (if he’s as innocent as Protess’s students say he is), and for two years my case has been held up by a meaningless squabble over whether the kids who want to free me minded some p‘s and q‘s. What difference does it make? Does truth depend on how it’s bottled?

Says the Economist, “There has been much debate about whether Mr. Assange should be regarded as a journalist. [The Guardian‘s Alan Rusbridger] calls him ‘a new breed of publisher-intermediary.’ Jay Rosen of New York University says that in the digital age ‘the very boundaries around journalism are collapsing.'”

And the magazine offers other examples of collapsing boundaries. It introduces the Sunlight Foundation, whose online databases track campaign contributions, federal contracts, lobbying disclosures, and the like. “All this provides raw material for journalists, but the compilation and presentation of these data sometimes shades into journalism.” To be more exact, it provides raw material for everyone; some people use it for purposes conventionally called journalistic. So where in that “shade” does journalism begin? It isn’t journalism to write “2 + 2” on the blackboard because journalism is adding the “= 4.” Is that it?

The Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller says of Sunlight Live, which combines a video stream of government proceedings with information on the speakers’ campaign contributors and lobbying entanglements, “That’s clearly journalism. . . . We want to use the tools of journalism to open up government.” And the Economist allows, “The line between activism and journalism has always been somewhat fuzzy, but has become even fuzzier in the digital age.”

And it notes a site called TheyWorkForYou, “which provides information on British politicians and is starting to add brief summaries of their activities.” The Economist asks, “Is that journalism?” and a spokesman for TheyWorkForYou replies, no it isn’t, because we merely aggregate information already available. But the Sunlight Foundation aggregates too, says the Economist; and what it does is journalism, or shades into journalism, or is journalism because Ellen Miller says it is. So to get to the question the Economist doesn’t get to, where’s the line separating journalism from mere aggregation. Must we draw one at all?

We all know how cell phones and Twitter have transformed both acts of revolution and the way they’re covered. There’s no point in debating whether video surreptitiously taken on a cell phone of a protester gunned down in the street is an act of journalism or civil disobedience. It’s dangerous and it gets the word out. Journalists of the old school have an important role to play collating all these bits and shards of information, evaluating them, and creating a narrative. But they’re standing in the stream, they’re not turning the tap.

“It isn’t true that everyone is a journalist, but a lot more people are involved,” Jay Rosen told the Economist. If we’re going to define and protect journalism when it’s something that nearly anyone can be involved in, we’ll have to write some broad and generous laws. Good luck to us.