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Woster Grapples with Definition of Journalism

Real journalist Kevin Woster and I had a heck of a conversation about the new incomplete journalist shield law that takes effect July 1. A couple of conversations, actually, in which Woster’s indulgence of my storytelling and amateur-lawyerly (I like pretending to all sorts of profession) discursive digressions allowed me to think through my own position on just how different professionally trained and frequently employed Woster may be from blogger me in practice, policy, and public value.

Woster finds the shield law and the discussion of the definition and value of journalism so valuable that he’s had to spread his thinking out across three weekly blog posts for South Dakota Public Broadcasting (imagine Kevin at Orman Dam, grappling with a fish that’s bigger than he expected). His first post in the series addresses the status of journalism and Trumpist attacks on truth. Woster’s second post looks at South Dakota’s new shield law. The third has my name in the headline and my face in the post, so of course, it is the most awesome.

Woster’s third post expresses his understandable sensitivity to bloggers and tweeters claiming to be members of his esteemed profession:

…as you might imagine, I’m a little sensitive about who calls themselves journalists and what that really means. Because it matters to me, a lot.

I went to school to be a journalist. I’ve committed my professional life to being a journalist. I’ve received on-the-job training and supervision and guidance and mostly constructive criticism and professionally based affirmation, to be a journalist.

A better journalist. That has always been the goal.

I’ve been working for newspapers, primarily, and other mainstream-media news outlets since I wrote my first story freelance for the Chamberlain Register in 1973.

The notion that “anyone can be a journalist” is jarring to me, because I believe that, no, not anyone can be. Not anyone should be, or try to be, or pretend to be, or be seen as such when in fact they might not be, and often aren’t.

At least, not under my definition of “journalist” [Kevin Woster, “Are They or Aren’t They Journalists? State Law Seems Conflcited, Which ‘Torques Off’ Cory Heidelberger,” SDPB: On the Other Hand, 2019.05.01].

I acknowledge journalist Heidelberger differs significantly from journalist Woster. But if we’re in court and fighting the state, the Constitution makes no distinction:

Bloggers are mostly about advocacy, though they certainly can do plenty of reporting while advocating, some of it quite good.

Heidelberger doesn’t deny his advocacy inclinations or the fact that he’s freed from a system of review and accountability that MSM journalists work in.  But that doesn’t matter, he argues, to the First Amendment and shouldn’t matter to the state when it designs a reporter-shield law that specifies that, with rare exceptions, journalists can’t be forced by threat of legal penalties to reveal confidential sources and hand over professional notes.

“The Constitution doesn’t seem to refer to a ‘press’ as having an editorial board,” Heidelberger said. “It refers to it as ‘the press’” [Woster, 2019.05.01].

Woster acknowledges that the historical context in which the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment may be on my side of that legal argument:

Over the last 14 years there have been location and job changes, and the blog became Dakota Free Press. Heidelberger has become a prominent spokesman for the liberal cause in South Dakota, who backs up his words with some astute snooping and good writing.

Almost always with a slant.

To which he says, “So what?” And to expand on that for him, just imagine what journalism was like when James Madison wrote the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which were approved by the Congress as the Bill of Rights and ratified by the states in 1791.

Do you think it was all large, well-staffed newspapers with training and monitoring programs committed to fair-and-balanced reporting? Hardly. It was a rant fest, large and small — with everything from actual newspapers to hand-printed pamphlets railing against the powerful and/or corrupt, in the world of government especially.

“It was very much individuals who didn’t exercise any kind of objective journalism,” Heidelberger says. “The ‘press” then was guys with their printing presses raising hell” [Woster, 2019.05.01].

Those are only excerpts from Woster’s lengthy meditation on the definition of journalism in law and history. Even the boring parts in which Pat Powers mutters a bit make the article better, since those passages, buried below the fold, help contrast the difference between the dull ejecta Powers urks up and the thought-provoking writing that real journalists produce.


  1. Nick Nemec 2019-05-03 11:31

    The framers of the First Amendment would certainly recognize Dakota Free Press as part of the “press” whose rights they were protecting. Local guy with an opinion electronically prints pamphlets with his opinion, said pamphlets sometimes irritate the powerful. The only part they might not recognize is the electronic part but I’m willing to bet they would approve, and appreciate the free speech and debate that happens after each post.

  2. Donald Pay 2019-05-03 12:06

    My thought on this is that professional journalists are often so busy pretending to be “professional” that they forget about being journalists. I don’t deny that having a good education in journalism gives you an advantage.

    I worked at the Technical Information Project, getting paid very little to do the actual work that journalists should have done. But then I also did the work that state officials and employees should have done, too. Now, I’m not attacking the great journalists that work and have worked at SD’s media outlets, or state workers at the DENR. They don’t work to provide us information or protect us from environmental disasters. They work for private enterprise. That’s the simply truth. They do not serve the public interest. Sometimes they do something in the public interest, but, usually, if it doesn’t also serve someone’s private interest neither journalists nor state employees are going to be around to ply their “professions.”

    I also worked for two years as a journalist at a Rapid City bi-weekly. Before then I had put in some time doing rip and read news anchoring at a student radio station. There are lots of different ways to do “journalism.” You can do hard news. You can do features. You can do analysis. You can do investigative reporting. You can do straight reporting. You can gather facts and report them, take quotes and report them. You can go behind the quotes and find out someone is not telling the whole truth. You can cover two or more sides of a story, or you can cover one side in one story and other sides in follow-up stories. You can get tips that are nothing but gossip and fake news, and not report them, because you can’t confirm anything. If you like to report gossip or fake news, you are employed at Trump’s favorite media outlets. But even those slime are journalists. And the medium in which you work doesn’t matter. Whether it’s electrons, print or waves, you can do journalism.

  3. bearcreekbat 2019-05-03 12:34

    Woster’s suggestion that Cory’s writing is

    freed from a system of review and accountability

    made me laugh out loud. Whatever Cory publishes seems to be relentlessly questioned, analyzed, criticized and even attacked. From Kurt Evan’s and others pointing out grammatical or spelling errors to myself telling him that his headlines are misleading, Cory’s writing is constantly reviewed by a multitude of critics.

    Thus if a “a system of review and accountability” is required to be “journalist” then Cory is a “journalist” in spades.

  4. mike from iowa 2019-05-03 13:13

    Constantly printing provable lies is not journalism, that is propaganda practiced on a wide scale by one particular political view point.

  5. Debbo 2019-05-03 16:32

    My rule is if I like them and what they say, they’re journalists. If not, they’re PP ilk.

  6. Roger Cornelius 2019-05-03 18:22

    Make no mistake about it, Cory is a journalist and even better he is a investigative journalist/reporter.
    The reporting of EB-5 and Gear Up were superior to any other news agency in the state.
    Even the now infamous pair of Maria Butina and Paul Erickson were first reported on DFP, at least as far as I know.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-03 19:59

    Nick, it would be fascinating to invite Jefferson into a time machine, bring him here, show him my laptop and the Internet, and just ask, “Is this what you had in mind?”

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-03 20:19

    Donald, you mention a lot of different kinds of research and writing that journalists can do. I’ll overlay a trichotomy that Woster mentioned in our discussion. He recalled David Montgomery, who wrote for the Cap Journal, RCJ, and that Sioux Falls paper. Montgomery was (and, as you will see if you check out his Twitter, still is) a data nut. Give him a story with numbers requiring analysis and presentation, and he goes hog wild. I like digging into policy and analyzing court cases and arguments. Woster said he himself doesn’t really fire up in either of those areas. He does better talking to people and weaving their stories together for a good retelling. (Consider his latest blog post, excerpted above, as an exemplar of his approach to journalizing.)

    Montgomery, Woster, and I write different kinds of stories. Journalists focusing on each of the skills/styles Donald lists write different kinds of stories. Different kinds of stories reach different kinds of people. So ideally, if a newspaper/magazine/TV station/radio station/blog wants to do the most instructive journalism for the most people, it needs to have a variety of reporters with a variety of skills and styles. (Maybe strike TV from that group… because does any TV station have reporters who do anything differently from the corporate broadcast model?) When newspapers layoff reporters, when newsrooms get smaller, we lose the diversity of styles and skills we need to get a fuller picture of our community.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-03 20:23

    Bearcreekbat, that’s a really interesting observation. It does seem that I face a lot more scrutiny than the typical yahoo on Facebook publishing every wild meme willy-nilly and never really being held accountable by his online echo chamber.

    Perhaps the proper logical conclusion is that I’m no typical yahoo; I’m an exceptional yahoo.

    But would you agree, BCB, that my accountability system is notably different from Woster’s? His happens mostly during production. Mine happens after publication.

  10. Debbo 2019-05-04 00:03

    Cory said, “It does seem that I face a lot more scrutiny than the typical yahoo on Facebook.”

    That may not be true, but the typical yahoo on FB doesn’t care because he’s not trying to do a public service. He’s just spewing, with no regard for ethics, like Alex Jones, for example, though he’s actually got a radio show.

  11. bearcreekbat 2019-05-04 01:25

    Cory, one of the notable differences is that your accountability is under bright lights giving you no opportunity to correct anything before you hang yourself out in public to dry, while Woster’s is private and the spots are easily removed on the quiet before it is ever seen in public.

  12. mike from iowa 2019-05-04 07:53

    Jones and others are banned permanently from Facebook. I believe I read this yesterday.

  13. John Tsitrian 2019-05-04 08:23

    Bloggers are to journalism as street theater is to Broadway. Bloggers are provocateurs, not reporters. A good blog has a rhetorical Molotov cocktail in every post.

  14. Porter Lansing 2019-05-04 08:34

    Good one, Tsitrian. You’ve thrown your bomb and are no doubt hoping it will explode into massive amounts of response to quell your prurient, sideline desires.

  15. JW 2019-05-04 09:30

    Journalism should contain a whole lot more data and analysis………. I continue to think of Paul Krugman’s assertion that “facts (i.e. data) have an inherent liberal bias.” I also reflect on the words of Robert Heinlein: “If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is
    opinion.” Those two thoughts trigger my loathing of people like Limbaugh, Hannity and DWC.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-05-04 23:07

    Facts and Tsitrian’s cocktails make for a delightful combination…not to mention powerful varnish-stripper.

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