What is journalism for?

Introduction

The following introduction activities are designed to bring out the following talking points:

  • News is something new; something people want to know and share (public interest).
  • Rumors and gossips can be true or not true, but news should be fact-based (verified or verifiable information).
  • In today’s media landscape it is not easy at all to define what “news” is or what “journalism” is, however.

Activity idea 1:

  • Ask students to check their mobile phones and find the last three things they have shared with their friends and family members (An Instagram photo? A tweet? A video clip on TikTok? A web link? A text message?). Have them tell each other in groups.
  • They then need to discuss 1) what compelled them to share the content, and 2) if any of the three items can be considered “news.”

Activity idea 2:

  • Ask students to imagine a world where there is no news organization or professional journalist (there is news, of course, but in that world, nobody is making a living by producing or disseminating news).
  • Have them discuss what that world and society would look like in groups.
  • Ask each group to make a list of 5 things that would make such a world distinctively different from ours.

[Note] Most students would end up describing a situation really close to the real world, in our experience (proliferation of rumors, gossips, misinformation; difficulties of telling facts from fiction; authorities manipulating public conversations and so forth). The point of this activity is to make them realize the “dystopian” scenario they are asked to imagine is not that far-fetched at all.

Activity idea 3:

  • Divide the class into groups.
  • As a group, half of the class needs to define “news” in one sentence.
  • Ask the other half to define “journalism” in one sentence.
  • When all groups are done, compare the sentences.
  • As a class, discuss if there is any difference between “news” and “journalism.”
  • Then discuss if your country/community has any media organizations whose practices meet the definition of “journalism” in their view.

Definitions

The following are working definitions of what “news” is and what “journalism” is in the curricula we have developed. But they are still work-in-progress (the original version was produced by the Center for News Literacy but we have been modifying them for the last four years or so).

They are certainly not perfect but the important message to the students is that the act of thinking about what journalism should be, and why we need it that way, itself is more important than a fixed definition.

What is “news”? What is “journalism”?

  • Timely information of some public interest that is shared (which could be any information circulating in a community);
  • and it is subject to a journalistic process of verification (which means news consists of information that has been verified or verifiable — based largely on facts, in other words);
  • and for which an independent individual or organization is directly accountable (which tells us that factualness of information is not enough because the factual news can still be one-sided or promotional or misleading. Independence and accountability set “journalism” apart from “news”).

Journalism is VITAL

  • Verification: The process that establishes or confirms the accuracy of information with evidence (journalistic truth).
  • Independence: Freedom from the control, influence, or support of interested parties including oneself.
  • Transparency: Disclosure of interest, information sources, sponsorship, ownership, and other limiting factors in the editorial process.
  • Accountability: Acceptance of legal, moral, and ethical responsibility for one’s work.
  • Local: Act of informing relevant communities. Appraisal of the public interest.

Important note on independence and transparency in the Asian context

Not many Asian countries have mature democracy or robust press freedom. Many media outlets are not independent if we look at their organizational structure, ownership, and/or the editorial autonomy they can exercise. They are under the direct influence of, or control of, the authorities and/or big corporations.

Does that mean we tell the students the independent press does not exist in our country? No, in our curricula, we divide the idea into two levels — “macro-level” influence and “micro-level” influence.

The “macro-level” influence, which is mostly about media ownership and political structure, is something many students living in non- or less democratic countries are already very familiar with; the limitations of what the media can report, in other words, are relatively transparent to the audience in such societies.

We do discuss the difficulty of maintaining overall editorial freedom under those political circumstances but at the same time, there are great news reports produced by journalists in those countries that meet our definition, too. That is the “micro-level” view of the concept.

A journalist may not be independent in covering politics, but she/he can be independent when covering cases of child abuse, for example. Medical malpractices can be investigated independently by journalists working for state-controlled media. At the micro-level, we look at “independence” and “transparency” in relation to each news story, not the organization.

At this level, journalistic content in line with our definition could exist even in authoritarian countries.

Exercise

Find news reports that meet the definition of journalism above and other reports that do not meet the requirement — on the same topic and by the same news outlet. Have students compare them and discuss what the differences are.

For example, the following two articles are both published by the South China Morning Post (one is a straightforward journalistic piece and the other reads a lot like an advertorial).

Key takeaways

  • Defining journalism is not easy. Thinking about what it should be, and why we need it that way, is arguably more important than having a fixed definition.
  • VITAL is our guide to evaluate the standard of journalistic content.
  • In order to critically look at the news media, both macro and micro perspectives are necessary, especially in the Asian context.

Other resources