The Digital Journalist
Fewer 'Journalists,' More 'Professionals'

by Erik Ugland and Karen Slattery

With the rapid proliferation of news outlets and the expanding cohort of bloggers and other journalistic do-it-yourselfers making their marks online, mainstream reporters and photographers are clearly facing a crisis of identity.

For the past couple of years, journalism trade publications have been filled with hand-wringing, who-is-a-journalist essays, which invariably call upon traditional journalists to do a better job of distinguishing themselves from their less credible counterparts in the non-traditional media. But their prescriptions rarely go far enough, in part because they address the wrong question.

Instead of asking "Who is a journalist?" they should be asking "Who is a professional?"

Because so many people now embrace the egalitarian idea that everyone is a journalist, the term has nearly lost all meaning. Amateur chroniclers of the most prosaic happenings are now regularly awarded the title of journalist, which, to hard-core proponents of media democratization, might be a sign of progress. But it creates problems, too, by stripping away all of the nuances that separate the bad journalists from average ones, and the average ones from the exceptional ones. When all disseminators of information are put into the same generic box, it reinforces the simplistic perception that journalists are indistinguishable and are either universally good or universally bad.

In their efforts to beat back this idea, many mainstream journalists have made the opposite mistake. They have tried to carve out a special place for themselves in society - not by emphasizing the quality of their work or their high ethical standards, but by pointing to their status or credentials (salary, education, access, memberships and awards) as if they were undeniable indicators of journalistic acumen. These things should not be overlooked, of course, but they are more the byproducts of professionalism than the sources of it.

So what, then, distinguishes someone as a professional? Ultimately, being a professional is about values. It is about judgment, character and introspection. Those are the things that separate the real journalists from the rest and those are the kinds of measures that will hopefully be used in the future to distinguish and honor the best people in the field, whether they are Pulitzer-Prize winners working for The New York Times, or untrained dilettantes hacking away in the blogosphere.

Journalism professionals show judgment, first and foremost, by recognizing ethical problems when they arise, and by distinguishing ethical questions from legal ones.

When a photographer encounters a grieving parent, for example, whose drowned child has just been recovered from a river, a professional photographer immediately recognizes the risk of harm and the potential for an invasion of privacy and weighs that against the possible news value of any photographs he might shoot.

There is usually no legal problem when a photojournalist captures images of people on public property and in plain view. But a professional understands that determining what is legal is a completely separate inquiry from determining what is ethical.

Character is another essential value for professionals. Character can be exhibited in many ways, one of which is through empathy - the ability (and willingness) to feel for or identify with someone else's suffering. The admonition of some photojournalists to "shoot from the heart" is an expression of empathy. Photojournalists who are empathic relate to people as humans - as ends, not merely as means to an end. They understand, or at least make an effort to understand, what the human subject of a story may be experiencing and seek to faithfully reflect that in their work. Without that understanding, the photojournalist's story is at the very least incomplete, and at worst dishonest.

Journalists also exhibit character through selfless decision-making. There are scores of photos that a photographer might shoot that would be of interest to the public. But if their publication would sensationalize an issue, needlessly embarrass the subject, present information out of context, provoke an exaggerated response from the audience, or intrude on someone's expectation of privacy, a professional photojournalist will resist or discourage publication - even if it might cost him some added recognition or compensation.

Finally, a professional journalist is someone who is introspective - someone who is willing to seriously consider the impact of his or her work and its net effect. Journalists have long known that with freedom comes social responsibility. Socially responsible photojournalists recognize that their work has consequences. They understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. And they realize that in assessing their work, it is not enough to look at the immediate impact of a single action. The true ethical elites - the moral leaders - in this or any other profession are those who recognize the more subtle, long-term harms that can result from the accumulation of seemingly harmless single instances.

Consider once again the example of the grieving parent whose child has just drowned. Photographing the face of the parent twisted in pain requires only that one be able to aim the camera and click. The photographer needs only to be in the right place at the right time.

Capturing the "story moment," on the other hand, requires that one be able to read and understand the universals unfolding in front of the camera and capture those in a way that resonates with readers or viewers. It requires thinking about the storytelling process in a complex way, while keeping the interests of both the subject and the audience in mind. It demands more of the photojournalist, but in the long run enhances his credibility.

Neither the photojournalist's reputation nor the story is likely to be enhanced by a thoughtless point-and-click approach. Introspective photojournalists recognize that credibility and trust are essential to developing their professional careers and they take the time to respond accordingly.

The environment in which the photojournalist works is changing as technology evolves and as the number of news media outlets expands. What is not changing is the fundamental fact that humans will always have a need and a desire for news that is reliable, truthful and fair. That kind of news - good news - is invariably produced by good people - those who are judicious, empathetic and who act in concert with the welfare of their fellow citizens. These are the real journalists. These are the professionals. May they continue to serve us well.

© Erik Ugland and Karen Slattery

Erik Ugland is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media ethics, law and policy.

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.