What is journalism?

“For some it is a set of technical skills, for others a noble profession with responsibility to defend democratic process and an associated set of core ethical values and for other still it is a creative medium, an art form dependent upon fertile imagination and aesthetic sensibilities” (McNair, 2005, p.42).

Journalism is a historically diverse and undefined activity that has been variously con­ceptualised as a profession, a craft, an industry, a literary genre, a culture, a social prac­tice, a community or an ideology (Deuze, 2006; Mensing, 2011). Journalists’ perceptions of themselves are multi-dimensional and may involve roles as informers, interpreters or advocates (Willnat et al, 2013) but there is no single body to which journalists are answer­able and no way of preventing anyone from calling themselves a journalist (Holmes et al, 2013).

Professor Brian McNair suggests that journalism is required to be at least three things, often at the same time:

  • A supplier of information
  • A resource for, support to and participant in public life and political debate
  • A medium of education, enlightenment and entertainment(McNair, 2005)

Whilst these are all recognisable functions of journalism, none of them can be seen as defining characteristics.  There are activities involved in the supply of information and education for example, which do not involve journalistic activity (libraries, for example) and not much entertainment and sports journalism for example could be considered to support political debate.

Rather than uniquely defining journalism then, these characteristics could be referencing what can be described as the wider societal function of journalism in the Public Sphere (Habermas, 1989) or the function of journalists to serve citizens or consumers as invoked in the expanding body of literature on the public journalism movement in the United States (Deuze, 2006). In order to identify a defining function of journalism it is proposed to separate the public function of journalism from the “set of technical skills” described by McNair as involving the production of “mediated reality” (McNair, 2005): what journalists would recognise as the function of reporting.

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