What is a Journalist?

Image: Todd QuackenbushRecently I was privy to a conversation between some more experienced freelance journalists (more experienced than I am, that is) who were bemoaning the rise of ‘untrained’ writers calling themselves journalists. These writers who were making a living writing for lifestyle publications: travel, parenting, beauty websites and magazines and were daring to call themselves journalists.

Some of these writers had never even studied journalism at university or completed a media cadetship. And with no professional body to enforce regulation or qualification to obtain in order to wear that title (unlike say, an electrician, lawyer or medical doctor): any writer can call themselves a journalist. Can’t they?

After a few rounds of reminiscing about the good old days of media training and paying your dues, someone level-headed finally spoke up and raised the question: is it not the person’s qualifications that count, but what they write about – and how they do it?

What is journalism? Is it restricted to the realm of politics, war and the economy? Is it about conducting research, verifying sources, interviewing, objectivity, ethics and clear communication? Is it about reporting on emerging research, good news stories or local news? What if a celebrity is involved?

Are you a journalist if you write about the best kinds of cocktails, nappies or lipstick? Because even a person with the highest journalism qualifications and a cadetship at The Guardian can write about those things.

The interesting thing is that with recent industry cuts leaving subeditors and journalists without jobs, mid-career professionals are rethinking their own career advice. Many times I have been given the personal advice that I do not need an undergraduate degree in journalism to work in the industry and that in fact, it would be a waste of money and time. The prevailing advice has been to get a degree in a specialty, something you are really interested in, and then work hard on gaining the journalism experience needed to combine the two into a career.

In my case I had two very good English teachers in my senior years of high school who gave me the fundamentals of essay and feature writing. I went on to study marketing and public relations at university (which did include a few journalism topics). After a decade of business writing, copywriting and technical writing I took a diploma of freelance journalism to get an idea of how the industry worked (ie. How to submit to editors and whatnot) and in the meantime wrote on a volunteer basis for a video game website. That was my education in journalism.

And I’m still learning. I read industry textbooks and attend professional development courses. I take on tough assignments that at the start I may feel ill-equipped to handle, but by the end I have learned so much about the trade. I ask questions of my editors and colleagues and I use the MEAA as a resource (of which I am a certified member).

Sometimes I write about video games and consumer technology gadgets and other times I write in-depth reports on trade agreements and funding structures in the science community. But whatever I write, I always approach it with a journalist’s point of view.

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