Book Review: We’re all journalists now: Scott Gant

Gant’s well-researched book about American journalism advances the debate on who and who is not a journalist in the 21st century. But rather than solicit predictable opinions from both sides of the fence; the Harvard-educated media and corporate lawyer enacts the First Amendment as the ultimate weapon in settling the argument.

As someone outside the news media, Gant has no hidden agenda in preserving the status quo, and examines the issue from a legal perspective. Demonstrating an in-depth knowledge and understanding both of the history of American journalism and its evolution; he argues that new technology has made it possible for anyone to be a journalist.

He defines the practice of journalism as anyone who disseminates ideas and information to the public – whether they see themselves as journalists or not. He acknowledges that the internet, through its ease of access, low cost and lack of regulation, has had a major impact on the news industry.

Hundreds of thousands of bloggers produce news and information and offer analysis and opinion on a wide range of topics – and in a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 34 per cent of them regard their blogging as a form of journalism.

It comes as no surprise to learn that in a 2005 survey by the University of Pennsylvania that 81 per cent of professional journalists thought the opposite – that bloggers are not journalists. But their opinions are of little consequence when 57 million American adults read blogs, and in a Christian Science Monitor survey, 57 per cent of respondents said they regard bloggers as journalists.

According to Gant, bloggers and other citizen journalists are merely filling a gap in the market created by the professionals. Since the majority of news businesses were acquired by large corporations in the latter part of the 20th century, today just a handful of conglomerates control the news media.

This consolidation has resulted in an intense focus on profits and led to more television coverage in the form of talk shows that are easier to produce. The quest for high ratings has led to a saturation of celebrity-focused programmes at the expense of investigative journalism and foreign news reporting.

But Gant’s primary concern is that the First Amendment guarantees press freedom, but it is longstanding views held about the role of the press – as a watchdog, to alert the public to important issues and promoting democracy; that have contributed to a system that grants rights of access and privileges to professional journalists that are denied to everyone else.

Gant contends that the First Amendment does not state the criteria that determines who qualifies as a member of the press; and asserts that the Supreme Court has mostly interpreted the First Amendment as was intended – as a personal right extended to every American citizen, and not an institutional right solely for news organisations.

He says the problem arises because journalism is regarded as a profession; a view that is out of date in the 21st century when it is has clearly become an activity that anyone can participate in. This necessitates a rethink on the lines that divide professional journalists from anyone who might be engaged in journalistic activities.

Gant does not advocate the abandonment of press rights and privileges, nor does he suggest that anyone should be granted them. But rather, that the criteria for determining who gets press rights should be based on the type of activity that an individual is engaged in: not who they work for or whether they get paid for their journalism.

This view may be problematic for some, and the majority of journalists employed in the American news media will predictably be the loudest critics. Many will argue that with virtually anyone holding claim to the hallowed title of a journalist, the role of professional journalists will be devalued, tarnishing the image of the press as the key watchdog against corporate and government corruption.

But Gant argues that expanding the pool of people to recognise those engaged in journalistic activity will strengthen, not decrease the news media’s watchdog role. Gant makes an important observation about the current state of the industry: that the complex and interdependent relationship between news organisations, politicians and the corporate world often comprises claims to objectivity.

Citizen journalists and bloggers have no such divided loyalties, since they operate outside the realm of the mainstream media. Gant says that it is time to deal with the reality that “we’re all journalists now” and for the institutional and legal frameworks that govern press rights and privileges to adapt and move with the times.

Gant is not suggesting that the role of professional journalists is the same as that of citizen journalists, but argues that subjective views about the importance of professional journalists or the quality of their work should not be a basis on which to determine access to press rights and privileges.

As the founder of a social enterprise created to widen access to journalism, I tend to support Gant’s views. Although his book is based on the American media, it could just as well be the UK as journalism evolved in both countries in very similar ways.

I see no harm in extending additional rights granted only to professional journalists to citizen journalists and bloggers who engage in journalistic practice by publishing news, analysis and opinion on their blogs, in community newspapers and magazines, or on community radio or television.

In the UK this is often determined by who is allowed to have a press pass and the stringent rules for their issuance often means that only paid journalists and recognised freelancers are granted these rights, so the issue is also very relevant to the British news media.

However, I feel that of greater significance is the small, elite pool of white, middle class people from which the British mainstream press is drawn. I therefore see it as a positive that bloggers and citizen journalists from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds are helping to diversify the new media in ever-increasing numbers.

Gant’s book makes an important contribution to journalism scholarship by reminding us of the need to balance the press rights and privileges of major news organisations against the rights of the individual; and that these are part of the tools and resources that anyone who engages in journalistic activities should have access to.

ISBN:                          9780743299268

Publisher:                    Free Press

Published:                   June 2007

Author:                        Scott Gant