Who is/isn’t a member of the media

“Curious as to your definition of being in the media. …”    @christopherlion

I’d like to think I’m someone who doesn’t feel the need — the compulsion, practically — to share my opinion with all and sundry. I often go for days without telling folks what I think, while simultaneously browsing through the views, opinions and feelings of others (Ed: Ah, Twitter. What a great medium).

But as you can see above, my fellow blogger and Twitter friend ChristopherLeone of OpenWheelAmerica.com called me out the other day on an opinion I’ve given more than once without really stopping to define what criteria I use.

Just like your nose, everybody’s got one

The case in point was comments given by Fox/SPEED racing commentator Larry McReynolds during the annual NASCAR Media Tour. In short, Mr. McReynolds admonished media members to be more positive in their reporting on NASCAR as a way to help a sport recover from recent slump in viewers. SBNation’s Jeff Gluck covers it well, here.

Gluck’s opinion — and mine, also — is that his only responsibility is to tell the truth to readers, saying in part: “The media is supposed to report on what’s happening, not sweeping something under the rug or glossing over an issue to make it look better than it is. … I don’t think I’d be doing my job very well if I didn’t report the truth.”

What makes Twitter great

This led to a fun round on Twitter during which I opined that Mr. McReynolds, who was frequently referred to as a member of the media — in fact is not a member of the media. No TV cable-sports commentators, who I call Talking Heads, are. They are paid to promote and entertain, not to report (Ed: *Cough* cough* ­­The Decision on ESPN *cough*cough).

I added also that I no longer consider myself — ex-sportswriter, current freelance/PR/blogger — to be a member of the media. I do consider some bloggers to be media members, but conversely being a blogger doesn’t make you a media member.

Which led to Mr. Leone calling my bluff, something long overdue as I’ve been labeling folks as media and not-media long enough without committing to paper (Ed.: electrons?) how I come to that conclusion.

Let’s start by changing things up

Before going further, I’d like to change what we’re talking about a bit.

I don’t really like the term “member of the media” for this discussion. Instead, I propose “journalist,” a term many automatically relate to someone who works for newspapers and magazines, but which can also include the electronic mediums of TV, radio and of course the web. A sportswriter is a subset.

Where a journalist works is less important to the definition than how they do that work.

So, what is a journalist, Professor Whitmore?

To me, the most important factor is truth, as Jeff Gluck said in his blog. Regardless of the medium they work in, a journalist discovers and then reports the truth, regardless of the potential ramifications — positive or negative.

The second most important factor is having and respecting a responsibility to the audience. Not all truths need/should be discovered or reported. Herein lies a very tricky area, as the question of privacy comes into play. Generally speaking, the main criteria for what should be reported can fall under the category summed up by the nebulous phrase “public good,” although the lesser “public interest” can also apply.

A third important factor is “access.” Although some work independently, most journalists work for an organization which exists to support the work of journalism. The organization provides the journalist with accreditation which is used in the process of discovering truths. I can attest to the fact that flashing a press card opens a lot of doors.

An example, please, Professor

When I worked part-time covering motorsports for a newspaper, rumors that the promoters at the local racetrack had missed several lease payments to the track’s owners — the county I live in — led me to do some investigating.

The promoters were quite angry about me looking into the matter, telling me it was not a public matter and therefore none of the paper’s business.

My thinking was obviously different and went thus: (1) The track was owned by a local government elected by the readers of our paper, a government which was also facing budget shortfalls; and (2) based on the rumors, local drivers and teams had very real concerns about the future of the upcoming racing season and the track.

Now, I think this scenario clearly fell under the “public good” standard as it involved a local government, but what if it had been a privately-owned track and the rumors were about vendors/suppliers not getting paid? In that case the standard of “public interest” may or may not have applied, depending on the extent of concern in the local racing community.

So that’s pretty clear, right? Err, maybe not …

Now that I’ve given a definition, let me go ahead and tear it down a bit by talking about opinions.

Anyone who has picked up a newspaper or read a magazine knows side-by-side with the “who, what, where, how” factual stories are columns and opinion pieces. And many, many blogs are nothing but opinion pieces, with minimal factual reporting or only links to factual reporting. Do those columnists, bloggers and opinion-givers fit in my definition?

Some do, some don’t.

Some of the finest journalists that I ever worked with at the newspaper were columnists. These were veterans who had risen to a level of experience that allowed them to discover and report truths while adding their opinions.

Longevity is, of course, not a prerequisite for experience or the ability to address issues fairly and factually. A key factor for columnists is that they clearly identify themselves as journalists who are going to express an opinion in addition to reporting/discovering truths.

Some bloggers fall into this category, many others do not. Some journalists blog in addition to their reporting duties, giving a beat reporter like I was the chance to throw some opinions into the mix as well as straight reporting.

But many bloggers are just everyday folks with something they want to say about something they are very passionate about. In short, they’re fans. Their blogs are a method of providing the world with their opinion, usually basing their posts off either the opinion of others or the work of “real” journalists finding/reporting truths.

In a few rare cases, a blogger can and has become a journalist by following the rules of journalism, discovering and reporting truths, etc. But having a blog does not require access — look, you’re reading mine and I’m nobody, right? — limiting the blogger’s opportunity to easily and regularly discover truths. Note I didn’t say it eliminates the opportunity, but generally speaking it is much harder to talk your way into and out of situations without that magic card.

But just like having a blog doesn’t automatically make you a journalist, gaining access doesn’t make someone a journalist, either. Many events, venues, and organizations issue “press passes” based on the perceived benefit of getting free — and ideally positive — publicity. A free ticket to watch the show is one way of accomplishing that.

It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: celebrities, politicos, anyone who writes a “guest” column or op-ed piece are not journalists. They may indeed report/discover some truths in addition to giving an opinion, but their purpose is to persuade/dissuade.

Where does that leave you?

I’m not sure, but if you’ve gotten this far I’m very impressed with your stamina and willingness to put up with sub-par thinking and writing.

Seriously, I’m not a journalist anymore, although I do try to adhere to the standards of a journalist in my blogging and freelance work. But I no longer have access, and I’m no longer out digging up truths. My work today as a blogger relies on others to do that; I am a provider of opinions and an interpreter of the work of others.

Blogs are a great addition to the universe of public opinion, allowing anyone the chance to express themselves, learn what others think, and find others who think like they do.

I do not think less of myself or anyone else for not being a journalist, by the way. At least I’m not a TV Talking Head spouting inappropriate advice to a roomful of real journalists and others.

Last thought: a recommendation

I would strongly recommend any budding (or grizzled) sportswriter take the time to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Press Box” by Leonard Koppett.


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