Princeton University, that rarified institution where Einstein spent his latter days, defines a reporter thusly: a person who investigates and reports or edits news stories.
Not much help there (after all, what’s a news story?). A far better definition comes from the dialogue in “Teacher’s Pet,” an early 1950s movie starring Clark Gable and Dorris Day. Gable is the city editor for a metropolitan newspaper, and Day is a journalism professor at the local college who teaches night school. The tension of the plot: How do journalists define news. “Blood and sex,” Day says, holding up the screaming headlines in Gable’s paper. “Journalism is so much more than blood and sex.” Gable, giving his trademark squint, asks, “How do you feel about sex?”
Ultimately, the grumpy, order-shouting Gable is persuaded reporters must go beyond the tantalizing “facts” to get the real story, and Day agrees reporters are not sociologists but storytellers. The debate they have is astonishingly appropriate 60 years later.
The journalism community is in the midst of a similar, though perhaps more fundamental, debate. Who is a reporter? Are bloggers who react to Kanye West’s dissing of Taylor Swift “journalists?” What about those who toil on their Web sites to attack or support President Obama? Are they journalists?
I vote no. A journalist in America, I would argue, has a narrow and specific meaning that has evolved through the decades and centuries since 1776. In order to be a reporter (i.e. journalist), three conditions must be met:
1) Independence. A journalist must not be intelluctually allied with any particular group or any ideaology. This, I know, sounds naive, and it may be. The point is not that reporters are “objective,” which is the Golden Calf of journalism, but that they understand their own biases and proclivities and are willing to go around them in order to understand an issue, event or person.
2) Public mindedness. By this, I mean simply that their efforts are directed at issues, events and people involved in matters of public concern. Public interest is as difficult to define (perhaps more so) than reporter, but the basic gist is this: it deals more often with the idea of “need to know” rather than “want to know.”
3) Loyalty to accuracy. We leave truth for another day. But a journalist, above all, must have a good-faith belief that what he or she puts before an audience is accurate in a factual sense.