In high school, being a reporter meant you signed up for Ms. Cave’s course. You wrote for the school newspaper and you often spent your time working on layout. You carried around pens and a little notebook for taking down quotes. Sometimes you carried a camera. Being a reporter was about spreading the news, sharing what was going on, and all the while, building a solid portfolio as a writer/photographer/videographer. My definition of being a reporter has changed much since high school.
I got my first taste of real reporting when I did my high school graduation project. I spent most of a school year working as a correspondent for The Back Mountain Community News, a local paper that my aunt published. The work ranged from covering little league baseball games to Kiwanis meetings, but during that time, I learned a lot about what it really meant to be a reporter. Reporters have to take something seemingly uninteresting and make it seem worthwhile. Reporters have to meet deadlines and give a true yet unbiased feel for what has happened. Reporters have to write well.
That time working as a correspondent helped greatly with my writing skills, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I really started to push my ability. With the help of one of my professors, I got to start freelancing – for real. For money. For bylines in a publication that wasn’t even in the same state, let alone my home town.
So what exactly is a reporter? Is it someone who writes for his or her aunt’s newspaper? Someone who gets paid to write articles? Someone who carries around a little pad and asks, “Can you tell me more about that?” Reporting is a lot of things, and right now, the definition is up for interpretation.
Let’s go to Wikipedia for one interpretation: “A reporter is a type of journalist who researches and presents information in certain types of mass media. Reporters gather their information in a variety of ways, including tips, press releases, sources (those with newsworthy information) and witnessing events. They perform research through interviews, public records, and other sources.”
Okay. So a reporter is someone who gathers information and then presents it to others. Sounds simple enough – but what about a person who sees something happen and then tweets about it, causing the message to go viral? The components are there: information and mass media.
Now, in Wikipedia, “journalist” is tacked on as part of the definition. Let’s examine further.
“A journalist collects and disseminates information about current events, people, trends, and issues. His or her work is acknowledged as journalism.”
Okay, so there collecting of information and there’s distribution. Again, where is the production (ie writing, photography, videography)? The quality? The ethics? The definition of journalism and reporting have both become so vague that almost anyone can assume the title and/or role.
With the presence of social media, reporting has taken on an entirely new form where “civilians” (non-professionals) can report news instantly, and in many cases, faster than any news organization can.
Need breaking news? Look no further than your cell phone. In a matter of seconds, pictures, video and text can be posted on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or another website using this device.
Our lives demand instant gratification. We want our information and we want it fast. Cell phones and social media make it easy to deliver – but what about the accuracy? The authority and reliability? The quality? The commitment to ethics? For many people, the rules have now changed and anyone can be a reporter. After all, if it’s just about gathering information and sharing it with the masses, who couldn’t be one? You can bet that at least a few social media users have now tacked the title of “reporter” onto their profiles or at least their egos.
A perfect example of civilian reporting would be in the case of the Iranian elections. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with “first-hand” accounts from protesters, photos of riots, and even a grisly video of a woman’s last moments of life. Professional reporters couldn’t get as close to the action, nor could they transfer information to their respective news organizations fast enough. The task of spreading the news fell to those who were actually there, and thanks to cell phone cameras and text messaging, the whole world learned of the political unrest.
But amid all of that breaking news was a vast amount of fluff that was inaccurate. There were reports which were highly exaggerated, or just plain false. Information couldn’t be trusted. Sources couldn’t be trusted. Nothing was certain – yet the world considered all of it to be news.
When did we decide that we all had a part in reporting the news? We don’t consider ourselves to be journalists, yet we participate in the same behaviors which define their positions. I feel a lot of it has to do with the online culture that has developed over the past decade. We feel that we all own the internet and as a result, we can contribute to its information architecture one brick at a time, either for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. Granted, I could go on about this view for quite awhile, but let’s get back to the original point of this post: what is a reporter?
By definition, all one needs to be a reporter is information and a way to spread it. In that case, anyone with a cell phone and a story to tell can be a reporter. In my view, there’s a lot more that goes into it than just the spread of information. The commitment to accuracy, quality, and ethics have to be there in order for me to even remotely consider information accurate. If I see it on Twitter, I’m going to take it with a grain of salt since there are almost always daily rumors of celebrity deaths, usually fueled by spammers hoping to make it to the Trending Topics list to get some clicks. The truth is that the definition really isn’t as cut and dry as it used to be. You don’t have to work for a news organization anymore. You don’t need that pen and memo pad. You don’t need a press pass. Just send your message, via Twitter or otherwise, and wait for the world to listen.