The Two Stages of Journalism

August 29, 2010

Monarch butterfly caterpillarI studied butterflies as a little boy growing up in Grand Rapids. Like other insects, these beautiful creatures begin life as larvae, what we call caterpillars, and some of them are downright ugly. I raised many varieties, because it was more fun to grow them than to chase them and kill them. A caterpillar doesn't become a butterfly until it passes through metamorphosis, a process that we don't fully understand.

Many things in life duplicate stages of growth, because we're generally process-oriented in the way we think and behave. One of them is journalism.

There's a difference between the news and an account of the news, between the event or a report about the event. Journalism is the trade that crafts the stories, the accounts, and the reports of the news, but the "story" is just a part of the process, and defining that process by its finished products alone is a significant tripping stone in discussions about the future. The news transcends all associated narratives. It simply is what it is.

When referencing an event, we call it "the story," and that is understood amongst all the practitioners of journalism. The problem is when we confuse our story — our account or report — with "the" story, because they can be two very different things. Stories demand completion, but the news never ends. It comes and goes in the timeline of life that we call history, but no news story ever really ends for everybody.

Stories require storytellers, and there are plenty of them around. That the best seem to choose fiction isn't by chance, for imagination is the common denominator of all good storytellers.

Joe Friday used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am," but Joe was a cop, not a storyteller. The moment Joe's facts get blended with a writer's prose, we have a problem. This problem has become acute in the age when anybody can participate in the fact-gathering process.

Collin Siedor was the best, most imaginative storyteller I ever worked with. The guy is simply a great writer and he always recognized the difference between "the" story and "a" story that he could tell. I recall a drowning in downtown Milwaukee one day that Collin covered. "The" story was the drowning, but Collin's piece was how the event disrupted the normally peaceful lives of those who live and work along the river. The beauty here was that Collin's story could be told in full fashion, within the context of the bigger story, and it's a great illustration of the difference between "the" story and an account associated with it. Collin's story was complete; it had a beginning, middle and end, while the story of the drowning would go on for days.

In discussions about journalism's future, we tend to overlook the reality that there are two stages of journalism — the gathering of the news and the creation of accounts of what has been gathered. The former is what has been completely disrupted by technology and the ability of anybody to be a reporter of the news. This includes everything from blogging to smartphone pictures and videos. The latter, however, is the "how" of journalism's presentation. It gets all of the discussion about how journalism itself will be supported, and that makes it hard to find solutions for an iffy tomorrow. Storytelling is still storytelling, but if we can separate presentation from gathering, options become much more visible.

Dan GillmorA journalist is a keeper of a journal, a writer, a storyteller. This person functions in the finished product capacity, the one who writes an account of the news. In a recent piece for Salon, Dan Gillmor — the man who first wrote of "citizen journalists" in his seminal book "We, the Media" — asked the question "Who is a journalist? Does that matter?"

Gillmor asked readers to help him come up with a name for people who are "creating valuable new information in the new-media ecosystem."

This isn't only my problem, and it's more than just semantics. Asking the question in the right way has real-world impacts. So-called shield laws, for example, aim to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists whom they tell about government or corporate wrongdoing. Some states specify who counts as a journalist, which leaves out a huge range of people who effectively practice journalism nowadays; it also encourages a pernicious, back-door licensing of journalists. The right approach, if we need shield laws at all, is to protect acts of journalism.

As digital media become ubiquitous and more and more of us communicate and collaborate online, every person is capable of doing something that has journalistic value. Quite reasonably, relatively few of these folks imagine themselves as journalists, and they'd laugh if you called them one.

The question is easier to answer if consideration is given to the difference between gathering the news and reporting it. Both are Dan's "acts of journalism," but it doesn't take a "journalist" to gather the news. People who pen narratives should be given no further rights for gathering the news than anybody else, and this will help us in the creation of laws and protections for the act itself.

Steve SouthwellThe biggest special "right" granted journalists is access, and it's here where the challenges going forward will be greatest. In Lewisville, Texas last year, for example, the school board created special rules allowing principals to refuse interviews with anyone "if official press credentials are not presented or available." Blogger Steve Southwell says the rules are aimed at him and other bloggers in an effort to quash unfavorable coverage. Southwell does original reporting on his blog and requested interviews with three principals about campus policies for visits from religious organizations. Southwell's blog regularly takes on the Lewisville school district, and in passing the new rules, they've conveniently painted Southwell with a "non-journalism" brush and decided they don't need to speak with him.

It's incidents like these — and there are many more than you might think — that highlight the problem of assigning access to a elite group in an age when anybody can function as the press. We're going to have to revisit matters like this as a culture, because people like Southwell — regardless of the reason — are functioning more like the actual Fourth Estate than those who hold the presumed right to call themselves that.

Viewing journalism in two stages also reveals that it is in the story-TELLING that the problems of trust and the press exist. It's here where journalists run into trouble over things such as bias, plagiarism and the like. Some biases can be revealed in the events one chooses to cover, but news events themselves have little inherent meaning until the gifts of the storyteller are applied.

Truth-telling is the quest of the journalist, according to tradition, but truth is often lost in manipulative attempts to "write from the middle," and so, again, it is the story element of journalism that represents the greatest difficulty in the process of writing the day's first draft of history.

News gathering in the age of participation has to be viewed as separate from the product of "the news," because the latter cannot be protected at the expense of the former. We need those pictures of the jet that just crash-landed in the Hudson, or the demonstrations in Iran, or the view inside the subway trains after terrorist explosions in Spain. We also need the kind of school board coverage that the Steve Southwells of the world can provide, because nobody else is doing it. We need to protect the people with fortitude, not only those who function as props on institutional stages like The New York Times.

I'm with Dan Gillmor completely on this. "Acts" of journalism must be protected, regardless of who performs them, but we can protect the acts without labeling everybody a journalist. In so doing, we're going to find cultural niceties disrupted, as access is redefined. It's easy, for example, to take a picture on private property with a cellphone, but publishing that picture brings other issues into play.

As an old TV guy, I think that cellphone cameras level the playing field between print and video journalism. A print journalist, for example, can simply walk into a place and begin taking notes, but TV reporters need to bring those damned cameras along. With smartphones today, one's not necessarily immediately identified as a "TV guy," but we're still ethically obligated to identify ourselves in most circumstances.

Similar images from a "citizen journalist" pose an interesting dilemma for video storytellers, but the taking of those pictures needs to be protected, because news gathering is only part of the process of publishing journalism.

The act of gathering the news mirrors the concept of Continuous News, for real time news presentation is different than that which is fully vetted and finished, as you'd find in a newspaper or in a TV newscast. "The" story is the event being covered. Nothing is presented as a story told with a beginning, middle and end, because the process of gathering the news is what's being made public.

This differentiation is what provides such an opportunity for traditional news organizations, because it's possible to create and present two different products. The real-time, unfinished form is ideal for the Web. It suits not only the need to provide something for free but also the free-form, distribute-everywhere, everybody's-connected, everybody's-a-participant nature of the Web itself. The drift to real time in advertising also suits such a product.

The finished product — the home to the storytellers — suits any payment option that media companies require to support their commitment to journalism in a more traditional format. Viewing journalism in its stages, therefore, helps communicate the message of two different products that we'll need in the future.