What’s a journalist, anyway?

As a student of journalism at UNC, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the questions that persist in the industry today. And I will face those questions as I continue to study what it means to be a journalist, and as I become one.

I’ve noticed that, among the leaders at the journalism school here who I’ve learned so much from, there is division. Which is interesting, necessary and not talked about a lot.

Some are pretty committed to protecting what being a journalist has always meant. Journalists, unlike others, have a responsibility to their readers and to the general good of democracy and society to report unbiased, accurate information — giving voice to the voiceless, holding powerful people accountable and posing important questions when needed. These are the ideals I have fallen in love with. I feel special when I think I will be among those who have and continue to embody this.

Other teachers and students seem to think differently. To them, journalists in today’s world are ubiquitous. They are synonymous to “people + Internet.” Everyone is a reporter with great power to spread ideas and bring to light otherwise unknown situations, people and problems. This definition can seem to rob journalists of their magic. I think that’s why some in the first group don’t embrace this second meaning.

But as a student that is just entering into the world of journalism, I find myself in a strange place. For as long as I’ve been a thinking person, journalists have not been gatekeepers on an inside circle that get to tell everyone what they should pay attention to. I long for the old days of journalism because, in some cases, that is what I’m still being taught to thrive in.  But I am painfully aware of how things really are.

In order to find journalists’ place in today’s world, journalism schools need to embrace (not just in some, but in every class) that things are different. Yes, the foundational values of journalism are important. Yes, parts of the first definition will always be important to what journalists do. But at the front of every teacher and student’s mind should be: How do we face today? What is our place today? 

Those questions are not at the forefront of our syllabi, lectures and assignments enough. They are hidden in a couple discussions but not at the core of entire classes. Let’s change that. Journalism schools should be the first to face these questions because it is here that we are taught what we will be for the future. It is here that we decide what being a journalist means today and tomorrow.

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