Clarifying Who Qualifies as a Journalist Needed To Protect Journalism Practitioners, MU Expert Says

Changing Media Landscape Has Created the Need to Re-examine Who Should Qualify as Journalists

By Nathan Hurst
MU News Bureau

Columbia, Mo. (Nov. 11, 2013) — Recent debates in the U.S. Senate about federal shield laws, which are laws protecting journalists from being forced to reveal their sources by judges during trials, as well as recent newsworthy events such as Edward Snowden’s and Bradley Manning’s release of U.S. government secrets, have created questions as to how a journalist should be legally defined in today’s society.

Edson Tandoc
Edson Tandoc

Edson Tandoc Jr., a doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism, has compiled the following broad definition of a journalist, based on extensive research on how society currently describes the role:

A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing, and disseminating news and information to serve the public interest.

Tandoc believes that it is important to establish a consistent definition of a journalist, especially with the shifting media landscape due to new technology and social media.

“New technology has increased access to mass communication for many people, but simply having the ability to communicate on a large scale does not make a person a journalist,” Tandoc said. “In this age of information overload, it is vital for people to understand which information is trustworthy and which information is unreliable. It is also important to protect those sources of trustworthy information.”

In an article published in the online edition of New York University’s Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, Tandoc and his co-author Jonathan Peters, PhD ’13, a media lawyer and assistant professor at Dayton University, examined definitions from scholarly texts, legal documents, and membership criteria of professional organizations of journalists to understand how the concept is defined across these domains. They found that in journalism industry definitions, a recurring theme was employment, or being compensated monetarily for journalistic work. In legal and scholarly definitions, the researchers found a focus on social roles, such as government watchdogs or consumer protectors.

“We believe the definition we compiled is broad enough to include many new, pioneering forms of journalism,” Tandoc said. “However, by the journalism industry referencing employment, this definition excludes many people who engage in new forms of communication, such as unpaid bloggers and citizen journalists who gather, process, and disseminate news and information on matters of public concern—just because they do not derive their primary source of livelihood from their journalistic activities.”

Tandoc said a new definition of who qualifies as a journalist should not only move away from employment, but medium as well.

“It appears that there is a move in the journalism industry to do away with tying the definition to a specific medium. This is definitely a reflection of the changing times, as journalists no longer work for a single medium,” Tandoc added.

The Tandoc-Peters paper in its entirety is available for download: “People Who Aren’t Really Reporters At All, Who Have No Professional Qualifications”: Defining a Journalist and Deciding Who May Claim the Privileges.

Updated: July 21, 2020

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