Who is a ‘journalist’? People who can afford to be

A US Senate panel’s attempt to define ‘journalist’ pleases some and dismays others.

File photograph of The New York Times and and International Herald Tribune newspaper front pages in New York
Well-regarded media organisations cannot afford to pay their writers much above a living wage [Reuters]

On September 12, a US Senate panel approved legislation designed to protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In order to do this, the panel had to define “journalist”. According to the proposed law, a journalist is “an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information … [who has been] employed for one year within the last 20 years or three months within the last five years.”

The definition was met with approval by some and dismay by others. Politico, a website that tracks the minutiae of the DC elite, praised it as “a step forward for independent and non-traditional media organisations.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organisation that seeks to protect free speech online, decried it as offering insufficient protection for independent bloggers, reiterating their earlier argument that “Congress should link shield law protections to the practice of journalism as opposed to the profession.”

The Senate debate over who is a “journalist” arose in the aftermath of WikiLeaks, whose activity has been defined as both journalism and espionage. Expanding the definition of a journalist means expanding the legal protection journalists receive.

“I can’t support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I’m not going to go there,” said Senator Diane Feinstein, in a statement Matt Drudge denounced as “fascist”.

The debate over who is a journalist is a debate over journalistic privilege. But in a prestige economy, the privilege to protect the confidentiality of sources is not the only privilege at play.

Today people work for the possibility of working, waiting to be considered good enough to be hired by the employers under whom they already labour.

Journalism is increasingly a profession only the wealthy can enter. To narrow the definition of “journalist” to those affiliated with established news organisations denies legal protection not only to organisations like WikiLeaks, but also to the writers and bloggers who cannot afford the exorbitant credentials and unpaid internships that provide entry into the trade.

“The journalists who can tell my story – the story of urban or inner-city America – have taken a job in marketing while disseminating their opinions on blogs,” writes freelancer David Dennis. Since the recession began in 2008, racial diversity in the media has declined while gender imbalance has remained high. The bloggers to whom Dennis refers would have no legal protection under the Senate’s definition.

Whom would the Senate’s definition protect? Journalists employed at established publications, who are mainly white men from privileged backgrounds – a category of people who may have little interest in critiquing the establishment that benefits them. The Senate’s definition of journalist protects the people who need it least.

The price of journalism today

What does it take to succeed in journalism today? For Canadian writer Alexandra Kimball, it was a surprise inheritance. Only after a financial windfall was her freelance career possible.

“To be a writer in this market requires not only money, but a concept of ‘work’ that is most easily gained from privilege,” she writes. “It requires a sense of entitlement … and requires you to think of working for free – at an internship, say, or on one of those gratis assignments that seem to be everywhere now – as an opportunity rather than an insult or a scam.”

As digital media gave more writers a voice, qualifications for journalism jobs became more stringent and dependent on wealth. This is true worldwide. In 2009, the average cost of journalism school, often a prerequisite for hire in the US, was $31,000. Some universities charge over $50,000, along with living expenses the total bill can be above $80,000 (median US income is $52,000.) A British government report showed that in the UK, journalism is the third most exclusive profession to enter, with the greatest decline in social mobility among its practitioners.

The predominance of privilege has led to a deterioration of journalistic standards. “The people who have time to fool around for no money are the people who already have lots of it,” writes journalist James Bloodworth. “And if they are the journalists of the future our media will probably resemble the establishment talking to itself, and if that’s the case we will all be worse off, not only us hacks.”

Entry-level jobs in journalism have been replaced with full-time internships dependent on other internships. Today people work for the possibility of working, waiting to be considered good enough to be hired by the employers under whom they already labour.

Over the past decade, most internships in journalism have been unpaid. Even The Nation, a magazine known for its exemplary coverage of labour exploitation, paid its interns less than minimum wage until the interns protested. They will now make minimum wage – a salary which, in New York City, still locks out the majority of applicants. Only the rich can afford to write about the poor.

Many [journalists] lack consistent employment along with health care or a living wage. Now, under the Senate’s definition, they may lack legal rights as well.

Protests against unpaid internships – and unpaid writing, a practice common in publications like The Atlantic and The Huffington Post – are on the rise. But the bulk of journalists remain vulnerable. Many lack consistent employment along with health care or a living wage. Now, under the Senate’s definition, they may lack legal rights as well.

In an economy this unstable, there is no such thing as a fixed professional identity. The ability to protect the confidentiality of one’s sources should not depend on one.

Unequal pay

The plight of journalists is emblematic of broader trends in the prestige economy. In multiple professions, workers are performing nearly identical tasks for radically different salaries.

In academia, the tenured professor and the adjunct may teach the same courses and publish in the same journals, but only the latter earns poverty wages. In policy, unpaid interns often write and research the papers for which their well-compensated superiors get credit. And in journalism, freelancers often receive nothing while their staff equivalents earn lavish salaries.

Title may determine whether a journalist will get to maintain the right to confidentiality. But title is an arbitrary measure. It does not show professionalism so much as prestige, ethics so much as affluence and luck.

In an economy in which full-time work has been replaced by part-time labour, it is very easy to lose one’s professional affiliation, and the benefits – both material and reputational – it provides. Many do not define themselves as one thing but move in and out of different professions, struggling to find what work they can.

Kelly J. Baker, a well-published PhD working, like most scholars, as an adjunct professor, was told at a conference that she was “not a real academic” because she lacked a tenure-track job. “What the hell was I supposed to say to students now?” she recalls thinking. “Please ignore me as I contemplate my lack of reality? Don’t listen to me because I don’t matter?”

The Senate’s definition of  “journalist” applies that same standard to unaffiliated writers and reporters: do not listen to them, because they do not matter. Do not protect them, because what they offer is not worth protecting – although it may be worth prosecuting.

Credibility is not something that can be bought, but credentials are. Using affiliation as a criterion to define “journalist” means only the privileged get journalistic privilege. The Senate’s target may be WikiLeaks, but their proposed ruling gives a de facto demotion to writers locked out for economic reasons.

Journalists of prior generations worked their way up. Today, journalists are expected to start with an elite status and accept wages that have dwindled to nothing.

The result is that journalism is a profession which most Americans cannot afford to formally enter. The Senate should not be able to determine who is a journalist, when the people whom they represent cannot afford to determine that themselves.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

You can follow Sarah on twitter @sarahkendzior