Eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism
by Prof. Jay Rosen, March 1, 2010
These thoughts grew from a comment thread at Nieman Lab. The post in question was titled:The news Good Housekeeping seal: What makes a nonprofit outlet legit? Such things as: adherence to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, submitting entries for professional prizes and holding a press credential from a federal or state body were said to be good proxies for legitimacy in journalism. I objected to this:
I don’t think “professionalism” is a feature of legitimacy at all. We could say it’s one way of attempting to secure legitimacy, but the equation: professional news person = legitimate provider of news does not work. Nor does the reverse: you’re legit if you’re recognizably a professional.
Other than Jayson Blair, is there anyone associated with the New York Times who undermined its legitimacy more than Judith Miller? I can’t think of anyone. And yet after the revelations of what she did in the Plame case came out, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) gave her a First Amendment award. Her lack of legitimacy spread to the society. Are you aware what percentage of SPJ members are in fact public relations people? If you find out, you might be more circumspect.
Submitting for prizes guarantees nothing. They do not belong on your list at all. Nor do credentials. Check out the way the professionals in charge of granting press credentials behave when it comes to getting new providers into the Senate press gallery in DC. If you look into it, you’ll discover thin to zero legitimacy, but a lot of behavior that is typical of professionals. Is the Washington Independent a legitimate news provider? I bet if you looked at it you’d say yes. Find out if they can get credentials.
In reply, the author of the Nieman Lab post, Jim Barnett, said, “Hey, help a fellow. What would you say are some easily discernable, objective criteria to gauge legitimacy? How would you get past the Potter Stewart test?” He was referring, of course, to Justice Stewart’sdefinition of hard core pornography, “I know it when I see it.” So this is what I told him:
I know many people love that Potter Stewart quote but I don’t see much of a difference between, “I know it when I see it,” and “Actually, I haven’t a clue.”
What would you say are some easily discernable, objective criteria to gauge legitimacy?
I’d start with the will to veracity, also known as truthtelling. Truthtelling even when it hurts or causes problems for your friends. Real journalists tell us what happened because it actually happened that way, and not some other way. All forms of legitimacy derive from this one.
Then I’d move on to a manifest concern for accuracy, as in getting it right and correcting it when wrong.
Third pillar: transparency, also called disclosure, so we know where you’re coming from and what your stake is in the matter under review, if any.
Intellectual honesty: like when you paraphrase what Senator Brown says it actually does capture what Senator Brown says. This is sometimes called “fairness,” but I think my term is more descriptive.
Currency, in the sense that you are trying to report what happened recently, to keep up with events and what is known now. Journalism is about the present, not what was true six months or six years ago. Legitimacy in journalism has something to do with a determination to keep us up to date with a shifting world.
Inquiry: not the perfect word but the closest fit I can find. I refer to the drive to find out, to inquire and reveal more than what lies on the surface. We all know of situations in which the person in question didn’t lie but also didn’t try… to find out. That’s what I mean by inquiry: trying to find out. Journalism, to be journalism, must do that.
Utility, sometimes called by another name: public service. Journalists can get into legitimacy problems when they are trying to find out, but finding out serves no public purpose. Their legitimacy is clearest when the public interest is served by what they are striving to reveal to us.
Veracity, accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty, currency, inquiry, utility. That’s where I would start in attempting to define legitimacy in journalism. Providers of news, information and commentary who devote themselves to those seven things are solid citizens of Legit-a-land.
I have to add one more, but you will probably hate me for it because it will strike you as jargon, and all journalists claim to hate jargon (but “lede” is okay, right?) Anyway, my eighth pillar of legitimacy is polyphonicity. I know: awful term! It means “more than one sound.”
Journalism to be fully legitimate needs to present a plurality of voices, not just one. I don’t mean to invoke the gods of balance. They are false gods. I mean to suggest that journalism isn’t a monologue. More than one person speaks in it. More than one angle is taken on the object.
Now I am sure you noticed that among my eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism one does not find such things as: objectivity, professionalism, “code of ethics,” balance, getting paid, being incorporated as a commercial business, working full time at newsgathering, eschewing opinion, bearing a press pass, or getting certified by the (journalistic) powers that be.
These are shortcuts, and taking shortcuts is not… legitimate!
Selected Comments to the above article
I’d replace “utility” with a market measure: If more than three people are interested in your reporting, it’s utile. Also think “currency” is too narrowly defined. All those one-year retrospectives of the Fannie/Freddie bailout and TARP were journalism (lucrative journalism in many cases), though they brought few or no new facts — and absolutely no new ideas — to stuff that had been known a year ago.
Wondering where humanity fits into journalistic credibility. I agree that truthtelling is very important, but wonder about the detachment I sometimes see in journalists. Is it important to tell the truth in the most human and humane way possible?
I agree w/Rosen’s “8 terms” as descriptors of journ excellence but not as discernable, objective criteria to determine legitimacy.
What is interesting about the eight attributes of legitimacy suggested here is that few of them also describe skills that make journalists good at their job, what makes for journalistic competence.
Further, few apply specifically to journalism: Veracity, Accuracy, Transparency and Intellectual Honesty would each equally be a requirement for a legitimate researcher, or sociologist, or bureaucrat.
Professor Rosen is correct in dismissing attributes such as professionalism or remuneration as “shortcuts.” Yet they may correlate, very roughly, with those attributes of competence that are missing from his eight.
The virtues of journalistic competence include clarity of exposition, coherence of explanation, an ear for narrative, an eye for the telling, the unusual, the quirky, the pithy, the emotionally-charged. Can you spot the lede? Can you pick the dynamic soundbite? Can you write — or nowadays tweet — the headline? In short, can you divine what is newsworthy in a given set of circumstances and tell a story deriving from your insights?
It is a very rough rule of thumb, yet with a grain of truth, that would-be journalists who lack these attributes of competence — even if they confirm to all eight of Rosen’s attributes of legitimacy — will end up unemployable by any news organization; so rendered illegitimate, after all, by their own incompetence.
The later attributes Rosen cites — in particular, Currency, Inquiry and Polyphonicity — do allude to those approaches required to be a competent journalist. Currency: you need to know if something is news, as in a new thing. Inquiry: you need to have the curiosity to go beyond stenography or the rewriting of press releases. Polyphonicity: you need to enliven your storytelling with the clash between different points of view, outlooks on the world, vernaculars of speech, demographic backgrounds.
Which leaves us with Utility. Perhaps this is key to what makes a journalist different from someone else seeking to understand reality and to communicate it to others. A journalist is one whose discoveries and insights are for the benefit of civil society at large — not for proprietory clients or partisan activists.
Jay Rosen responds:
A list of journalistic competencies would be a different list, Andrew. I was concerned here with a narrow question: what makes the journalism legitimate?
Dave and Tim: when new information comes out about the past, telling us about it is staying current, just as changing views of the deep past are a kind of contemporary change.
KPav: the point is rarely made and almost never accepted when it is made, but… The fact that “objective criteria” may be needed doesn’t mean that objective criteria can be found. Sometimes there are none; there is only the need for them. Generally speaking, what institutions do in that situation is employ fake ones.
Reading Barnett’s column, it’s clear he’s identifying what makes journalism legit in the eyes of journalists. You are defining legitimacy from the point of view of the user. The fact these two groups define it differently is telling.
This speaks to the idea of political legitimacy and the fact it implies moral authority, the consent of the governed as to the moral legitimacy of the governing. To the degree journalism adheres to these standards, users can judge it authentic/trustworthy/genuine/morally legitimate, and thus give it authority. A refinement of this list could make a more legitimate code of ethics than SPJ or RTNDA or similar codes. The decline of traditional journalism’s authority is its loss of political legitimacy.
Final thought: it seems a single act could be defined as journalistic in some degree by your criteria, and that’s a useful test. But for a person to be considered a journalist, she would need to act by these criteria persistently. A body of work that provided evidence these standards were exercised over a period of time could earn someone the title of journalist. But a single act or a single infraction neither defines or disqualifies a journalist.
This of course, raises the question of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Is he being intellectually honest in his claims of journalism? Perhaps the publishing of the cables is an act of journalism, but the cumulative actions of Assange the individual over time might not classify him as a journalist.