Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


"Who is a legitimate journalist?"

By Timothy J. McNulty
The National Enquirer, derided by most journalists as a tabloid rag, exposed John Edwards’ infidelity and love-child long before the former senator and vice-presidential candidate acknowledged his affair and many months before other news media grabbed hold of the story.
Eager to be recognized for its journalistic chops on that scoop and for work uncovering other scandals, the Enquirer campaigned last month for consideration in this year’s Pulitzer Prize competition.
After some hemming and hawing by Pulitzer officials on technicalities, Huffington Post blogger Emily Miller reported last week that the Pulitzer Prize Board has quietly agreed to accept the Enquirer’s submission for the Edwards story.
Another milestone reached in changing the definition of what we call journalism.
Several months back, the issue came up in another context: A U.S. Army general talked about embedding reporters with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decision over who gets priority in going to the front line, he said, isn’t always so simple.
“Who’s a legitimate journalist?” the general asked with a fraction of frustration.
He was referring the many freelancers and bloggers, some of whom paid their own way to the war zones, and been accredited to cover the American military effort.
The decision isn’t so hard if journalists are from well-established institutions such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, from NBC and Fox News, or from CNN or another cable news outlet. But what if the choice on whom to embed is between an inexperienced reporter from a small, recognized newspaper versus a combat-experienced blogger who contributes to a half-dozen websites, or just to his or her own blog?
Does the institution or the work confer legitimacy? How do we define journalism?
The question also goes beyond political or military reporting and involves the Congress, the U.S. court system and even how journalists view themselves.
First Amendment protections apply, of course, to every American. But are bloggers, freelancers, students and others who call themselves journalists protected from revealing sources under “shield laws” adopted in more than 30 states?
A federal shield law offering that protection has been stalled in Congress for years. Last spring, the House approved a broad definition covering anyone who makes a portion of their living as a journalist. The Senate version, however, is much more restrictive, identifying and limiting those considered “legitimate” journalists to those who are salaried employees or independent contractors for an established outlet.
The Obama administration has been working with Senate leaders on a compromise formula to find common ground between the House and Senate versions, but it has remained on the back burner since last fall.
It seems self-evident that many freelancers and bloggers adhere to all the traditional values of journalism, but that professionalism is not evident to all.
For years, journalists from traditional print and broadcast institutions (aka mainstream media) questioned whether to consider bloggers as colleagues. An article for the Society for Professional Journalists in as late as 2006 framed it this way: “The controversy with Webloggers lies with accountability, accurate reporting and fair access to information. Some in the mainstream media question the truthfulness of blogging reports, while the bloggers themselves maintain they are an unheard, ubiquitous voice that filters missed opportunities by bigger media outlets.”
Occasions to rethink journalism and legitimacy follow one after another. Last weekend the Polk Award, one of journalism’s most cherished honors, was given for the anonymous video of the death of Neda Aghan-Soltan, who died during last year’s protests in Iran.
The idea of honoring the valor of a person in a crowd for using a cellphone camera to record an iconic news photo is unprecedented in the 61-year history of the awards, along with the category of “videography”. The image of the dying protestor was sent to at least two news organizations and quickly went viral on the Internet.
As more news organizations accept such “user-created content” in their reports, should so-called citizen journalists have the same access to press conferences, courtrooms and other meetings with elected officials?
Do they represent the public? Certainly many do and in an era of severe cutbacks in traditional media outlets, the public will need more and more information from fellow citizens operating as watchdogs of government and business.
But what if the citizen journalists represent a personal or perhaps hidden interest?
That question came up when a contributor to a suburban Chicago newspaper edition wrote an article praising the election campaign of a local candidate. The piece was printed, but days later the paper discovered the writer was also the candidate’s campaign manager. The paper created a policy insisting that citizen journalists must voluntarily declare if they have or might have a vested interest in the topic they are writing about.
Whether working for a recognized institution or striking out on their own to disseminate news and information, pairing the word legitimate with journalist has been a perplexing one. Back in 1996, Vigdor Schreibman was the first Internet-based journalist to apply for, and be denied, credentials to the Congressional press galleries. In 1995, Garrett Graff became the first full-time blogger to get White House press credentials. In both cases, the press associations were involved in the administration’s decision.
Merely writing for a newspaper, or appearing on television or radio does not mean the person is a journalist. Yet people commonly use the label freely, suggesting that anyone who reports or repeats some bit of news may consider himself or herself a journalist.
There is not, after all, any test to take, no licensing exam (at least not in this country) to pass, no government council (as there is in Britain and Australia) or private body to determine whether the person is reporting responsibly. There was consternation, for instance, when the FCC decided to describe Howard Stern as a journalist. Whatever their sympathies, I suspect that most reporters and editors oppose a government authority deciding who is or is not a journalist.
Writers and photographers without accreditation from any institution may be among the best journalists by their desire to discover and disseminate the truth. After working for the networks for several years, Kevin Sites took his own video camera to document wars around the world. After becoming a one-man operation for both words and images, Sites found a home for his work called the “Hot Zone” on and picked up numerous journalism awards along the way.
Yes, there are standards and ethical practices that journalists learn either on the job or at school. There are many journalism and/or communication schools in the nation’s public and private universities and enrollment there, despite the decline the newspaper industry, is blooming. (Full disclosure here, I am also a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.)
The best guarantee of good journalism is not only the writing but the editing or vetting of a story before it is published or aired. Traditionally, or at least the tradition of the last 100 or so years, has been verifying or testing the facts and events. That came to the news industry in search of some credibility after the age of “Yellow Journalism,” when media barons used their newspapers to support one political cause or another.
Despite more recent political howling about bias on one side or another, the practice of journalism during much of the Twentieth Century was to seek independent verification of events and test observations with multiple sources.
That is the kind of work done not just in the news pages but even among opinion writers such as Thomas Friedman in The Times who are journalists employed to use their own reporting ability and experience to provide informed opinion.
Of course, there are also columnists whose opinion is not based on journalism principles but on political sympathy. Appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, for instance, former adviser to President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, writes his heavily politicized commentary. I would no more call him a journalist than I would use that word to describe Garrison Keillor, the leftist humorist and usual Democratic supporter, who’s syndicated column appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune.
Brian Williams of NBC maintains a traditional position within the mainstream media, but Lou Dobbs, formerly of CNN, was a journalist who gradually turned into an advocate for restrictive immigration policy and possibly will become a political candidate. He is a journalist no longer.
Two stalwarts of the print media co-authored a book back in 2001 titled “The Elements of Journalism,” echoing the name of the classic book on good writing “The Elements of Style”. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel aimed at setting out some pretty basic principles of journalism.
The pair stayed away from repeating words such as “fairness” and “balance,” along with the other overused journalistic words, “objective” and “neutral.”
Instead, Kovach and Rosentstiel came up with these nine principles:
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news interesting and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
A discussion of what each of those principles entails would be worth having in every journalist’s newsroom and classroom. Just take the “discipline of verification” and see that verifying or checking it out is the basis for fair reporting.
Applying those principles to the general’s question of “Who is a legitimate journalist,” may be a better, if not an easier, method of coming up with an answer. Good journalists don’t need an institution to define them. The best reporting is based more on a reputation of honesty and the continuing work of the individual for truth-telling.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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