From the wire: What makes a journalist?

By Jonathon S. Platt
News Editor

There’s a special conversation we’re having in the journalism world. News professionals are asking each other: What makes a journalist?

It’s a unique idea that most professionals don’t think about. Doctors don’t run into this conundrum. Someone who went to school, earned a degree and now can point to a piece of paper that says, “I’m licensed to practice medicine” is a doctor. There’s a definitive line that revolves around certification in most fields.

However, the waters were stirred in journalism forever with the advent of the Internet, cell phones and social media. Anyone can be a reporter, just send out a tweet. Anyone can be a photographer, just point and click with your phone. Anyone can start a publication, just grab an online domain and start typing.

In all the murky questions and conversations, though, I think we’ve forgotten the value of a very simple test: morals. In the face of punishment – the face of being held accountable – how one responds indicates to me if he or she is a “real” journalist.

That means people who hide behind anonymous Twitter handles and troll for likes should not be considered news media. That means some who are actually paid by a legitimate news organization are not true journalists. But that also means we cannot discredit someone just because he or she is not paid to report.

For example, a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, started a website speaking against the country’s authoritarian theocracy. The Saudi Arabian authorities arrested Badawi and later convicted him of charges along the lines of what they call cybercrime and – get this – parental disobedience. His punishment: 10 years in prison, a quarter million dollar fine and 1,000 lashes.

Badawi will be caned in 50-strike intervals from the top of his back to the bottom of his legs in a public place then taken back to prison until the next day, when he’ll be bused back out and struck 50 more times. Again and again.

I think everyone who considers himself or herself a journalist needs to ask critical moral questions like, “How much force would keep me silent? How much money would keep me from reporting? How many lashes would I endure for words I wrote? What’s my line – 50, 100, 500, 2?”

I don’t think the number of lashes that scare you has anything to do with whether you can be a journalist. But it’s got everything to do with whether you’ll do journalism justice.

This blog is illegal in Saudi Arabia. For writing these words, I would be thrown in jail. Or worse.

Raif Badawi defied the illegal. For his words against an oppressive regime, he was imprisoned. Badawi found out what “or worse” means. And, yet, he’s standing by what he wrote.

That’s true journalism in my book.