What Is a Journalist?

In my heart, I am and always will be a journalist. Even as a child, before I put pen to paper or picked up a camera, it was part of my makeup. And though I have now left newspapers, this hasn’t changed. So then, what is a journalist? In this environment of layoffs and cutbacks, where some critics seem eager to dance on the grave of the newspaper industry, I think it’s important to remember what makes a journalist — and why the institution of journalism is worth protecting.

Unfortunately, most business people who run newspapers and media companies aren’t journalists and don’t really have an understanding or appreciation of journalism. They don’t understand why the job is important to our society — to our democracy. They don’t understand that newspapers can’t be run like any other business, where the only concern is the bottom line.

The journalism business cannot survive without resources to cover stories, without people experienced enough to ask the right questions, to expose our society’s problems and to hold our leaders accountable. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic in saying that we need to protect the institution of journalism before it is lost.

My Definition

What is my definition of a journalist?

Journalists have a desire to seek out the truth, and share it with others. They make sacrifices — personal, financial and otherwise — to get the truth because they care that much about reporting it.

The primary concern of journalists is not financial profit; it is telling the truth. That’s why readers can trust journalists to report what is happening, no matter who is involved.

Journalists are smart, educated and hard-working. They will work 36 hours straight, sometimes unpaid, and still be OK with that — if that’s what’s required to get to the real story.

Journalists care about their communities, world events, and people. They question authority, ask the hard questions and report the difficult and sometimes unpopular facts.

Journalists are objective and report both sides, regardless of their personal feelings. They dedicate their lives to helping everyone else live better.

Journalists tell stories about other people in exchange for long hours and low pay. They complain about both — but are quick to do it all over again when their efforts pay off and they produce a story that makes a difference, for one person or many.

Business People Don’t Get It

What many business people don’t seem to understand is this passion for telling the truth, for reporting the story, is a passion that many of us were born with, and it is not about money. We are not driven by getting rich, but by serving the greater good. Many of us have excellent educations but make smaller salaries than our peers; we accept this because of the personal satisfaction from a job well done.

We are smart enough to understand that we work for a business, and that businesses need to be concerned with financial issues. But journalists must be shielded from the financial questions as much as possible, so they can focus on doing their job. We are not accountants; we are storytellers. We trust that over time, our dedication to telling stories will draw in the readers and advertisers the business requires to succeed.

Sadly, there is now an environment of fear in the newsroom that prevents journalists from doing their jobs. Everyone is afraid of being laid off. More than 35,000 jobs have been lost in the industry in the last few months, so this fear is obviously not unfounded. Many journalists are now afraid to report or even say certain things, for fear that it may be unpopular with their bosses and get them on the next list to be laid off.

It’s hard to focus on digging deep and making personal sacrifices for a company that may kick you out to the street at any time. This is bad for all of us, because it means we are not getting the complete story — or the story at all in some cases.

Make Your Voice Heard

Budgets are being cut, investigative reporters are being laid off because they don’t produce enough stories for the investment, and bureaus are being closed because it is just as easy to get the story from the wires. We are losing journalism, and the people with the passion and skills to do it right.

I encourage you to let the business people at your local newspaper know why journalists are needed. Write a letter to the editor about the coverage you miss and why. Remind them how it affects whether you buy the paper — which in turn affects who advertises with them and whether they are going to survive this economic downturn.

And if you are a journalist — still treading water in this sinking industry — try to hold on a little longer. Because I hold out hope that the public will not let us all drown.


2 Responses to “What Is a Journalist?”

  1. Congratulations Heather, one of the best descriptions I've read yet on what our profession is all about and why we do what we do.

    While every journalist who reads this article should identify with it, unfortunately media owners and shareholders will probably still miss the point.

    The big question though, is will the people we write for - the broader community – recognize the role that journalists fill before it's too late?

  2. Heather, I am so glad you wrote this,, as a true journalist you took a stand for the story and the people behind it,, Yourself and your peers!!! I am not a journalist by profession but I love to write and have a few projects in the works,, I love to tell someone's story and have always been fascinated by the talent that writers such as yourself have. The sacrifices, the passion, and the integrity of the "art" of telling the story and still telling the truth is what I believe the business owners will never understand,,, your bottom line is to get to the bottom of the story,, to help and to inform. Their bottom line is to keep the "numbers" up!!!!
    Please do not give up! We need people with your heart and integrity. I have faith people will still want to read a paper and someday get away from only using a computer for everything! Imagine!!!! haha.. a computer is a great asset but somewhere along the way we have forgotten how great it is to have a conversation with someone in a coffee shop, or at our own kitchen table discussing what story we just read in the local news that morning! I personally miss that connection.. Hey maybe there is a nice story!! Enjoy a great day, Heather.

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