What is a journalist?

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Man thinking at typewriter. Photo by everett225/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1146 for May 24, 2018

In a discussion before the JSC about the Cybercrime Bill a week ago, Chairman Faris Al Rawi asked TTCS Secretary Dev Anand Teelucksingh, “May I ask you what you consider the media to be? What is the media?”

Teelucksingh wasn’t ready for the question, nor it seems was anyone else representing the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society.

That’s not surprising.

His first response was to play it safe, suggesting that media, as acknowledged by the Media Association of T&T (MATT) and the TTPBA would be a first line of consideration in such definitions. (MATT appears before the Joint Select Committee evaluating the Cybercrime Bill on May 29.)

Al Rawi pressed the question, “Would your contemplations about what the media includes go as far as anyone who says: I am publishing an article?”

“An online lone wolfer, if I could put it that way?”

Silence followed.

“Does your suggestion for an exception for quote, unquote, the media [in a clause in the Whistleblower Bill], include anybody? Because in Trinidad and Tobago, we don’t have a registry of media personnel.”

Another long silence followed.

It was a question that would be raised again, when the discussion was opened to the floor, as JSC member Paul Richards asked, “Who or what constitutes a journalist and should be protected by this?”

“And more importantly, who should not be considered a journalist?”

The American Press Institute notes, “Asking who is a journalist is the wrong question, because journalism can be produced by anyone.”

As the Institute explains on a series of pages on its website dedicated to considering the role of journalism professionals (report here), the journalist is a “committed observer.”

The term is attributed to Gil Thelen, former publisher and president of The Tampa Tribune, who sees the journalist as “not removed from community, though at times may stand apart from others so as to view things from a different perspective.”

The journalist, Thelen suggests, does not stand apart from the community, but is interdependent on the needs of citizens, contributing by “by being a responsible reporter who supplies background, verifies facts, and explains the issues involved.”

As the Attorney General noted during the JSC’s deliberations, there is no official registry of journalists in Trinidad and Tobago, and there is no tradition of licensing professionals to do this work.

Those absences presaged the current reality in T&T by conferring the responsibilities of the profession on anyone willing to meet the challenge of doing the work.

There are people who do the work of journalists without assuming its formal mantle, and are fully engaged with our society today. These are individuals who have chosen a beat, report regularly, analyse, interrogate and offer their findings for public scrutiny and evaluation.

They do so with a clear-eyed mandate to speak truth to power, ask difficult questions and to operate in the public interest.

There are also journalists, formally working in media houses who have, though the temptations of bribes, the lubrication of preferred treatment or the attraction of power sited themselves in situations in which they might be seen as suborned to specific interests.

None of this is new, but with the accessibility and reach of modern mass communication, there is now so much more of both and the lines that traditionally demarcated journalism from propaganda and PR have become irrevocably blurred.

If we cannot trust all journalists to hew to the highest standards of the profession and accept the possibility of high quality journalism emerging from non-journalistic sources, how is legislation supposed to draw the line that Richards hopes for, between those who are protected and who are not?

A more useful legislative engagement might begin by creating a framework for codifying journalism; this reporting that’s done in the name of public interest.

Is the work balanced? Does it offer perspectives that represent all meaningful aspects of the issue being aired?

Is the work fair and properly supported by demonstrable fact or reasonable supposition?

Is publication/broadcast in the public interest? Is the public’s understanding of the issues raised or facts revealed improved and clarified by it becoming public?

Is what is being reported or revealed harmful or illegal? Information gained through nonstandard means which saves lives, increases the public good or uncovers criminality or unnecessary waste of public resources or money may outweigh the concerns about how it was revealed.

In a world in which anyone can do journalism, perhaps it’s more useful for the law to be focused on the journalism itself and to consider fair, sensible measures for such work that identify it as being produced in the public interest and for the common good.