As digital platforms become more complex, journalists no longer simply ask themselves how best to portray a story with words and pictures. The digital medium provides unique and dynamic opportunities for stories and data to come to life. Data visualization — graphs, animations, interactives, and more — is increasingly becoming one more tool in a journalist’s storytelling kit. This week, we’ll be joined by Len de Groot, the new director of data visualization at the Los Angeles Times, to discuss how media outlets are pushing the limits of visual storytelling. We’ll also take a more philosophical turn on this episode and discuss the tricky issue of defining a journalist, especially in the context of penning shield laws that protect journalists from identifying their sources. To make sense of that debate, we’ll be joined by MediaShift contributors Jonathan Peters and Josh Stearns. We’ll also be joined by our regular panelist Andrew Lih of American University, new media consultant Sarah Evans, and our host Mark Glaser of MediaShift.
Although it might seem like an exercise in navel gazing, the task of defining a journalist is important and practical, and now is a good time to take it on. But before we go into more detail, a few words to widen the lens.
The spring and summer of 2013 did not signal the high-water mark of press freedom in the United States. In May, the Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed that it had obtained months of phone records of Associated Press reporters and a “portfolio of information” about a Fox News correspondent — all to investigate the sources of certain leaks and possibly to intimidate leakers. Criticism of the DOJ was swift and harsh, and it came from all directions, with Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, putting it best: “The message is loud and clear that if you work for the federal government and talk to a reporter that we will find you.”
Two reports released last week tackle this question from very different perspectives. Jonathan Peters and Edson Tandoc wrote a post on PBS MediaShift headlined “Defining a Journalist Is Messy, But Crucial.” Their research focused on using “scholarly, legal, and industry” texts to determine common elements of how a journalist is generally defined.
What emerged is a definition that even the authors themselves won’t stand behind, calling it a “fatal blow to new forms of journalism.”