Six roles, or job duties, of modern journalism

In the era of Packaged Goods Media, the journalist played a command-and-control role. He or she determined the news of the day (news judgment), organized it around his or her own sense of importance (news value) and published it to a compliant audience.

The role was linear and uncomplicated.

In the era of distributed media, the relationship between journalist and audience is asymmetrical.

As “audience” transmutes to “community,” and the level of communication and information increases exponentially, as news becomes less ecclesiastical and more egalitarian, the role of the professional journalist is changing.

Fortunately, there is still a role.

Here are six roles the modern journalist should serve:

  • The Ethical Role. Yes, journalists get bashed about because of real and imagined lapses in ethics, but the challenge now is to raise the bar on professional ethics, and then provide ethical guidence to today’s participatory audience. We should deal more swiftly and transparently with ethical errors within the profession, but we should also provide teaching tools on information ethics, what ethics means and why it’s important, and how to spot compromised ethics.
  • The Guide/Filter Role. Editors and reporters should assume some responsibility for providing their audiences with pointers to the best stuff on the web, be it the best-reported of the important news or the most interesting and entertaining articles and videos. In a command-and-control environment, we cared only about directing people to what we ourselves did. Now our role is to help audiences sift through the glut of information assaulting them daily by providing pointers. This is the value-add role, and if done right it can help overcome the digital-age tendency for people to focus too narrowly on their own interests. If done well, it will bring more people to your site or publication.
  • The Understanding and Context Role. Why should the best bloggers get to have all the fun? The best journalists should become the best bloggers. I know many really, really smart reporters and editors. These people should have blogs, and they should serve readers better by taking the news of the day and putting it in context, combing articles for the tidbits that need to be weaved together to make a bigger whole, and explaining what it all means.
  • The Conversation Leader Role. Already, our news reports start a lot of conversations with our without our consent. The conversation-starter role should become explicit in our job descriptions. Once started, we should guide it. We should thank and encourage the good contributors, and depreciate the bad contributors We should highlight the smartest things people say. We should provide our own insights and supplemental knowledge to any conversation we find. We should be full participants, not just the lurking overlords of top-down media.
  • The Aggregator Role. We should aggressively gather data related to the communities we serve. We should make sure that anything that is knowable about a community we serve is findable through resources we provide. While in the Guide/Filter Role we might provide pointers, in the Aggregator Role, we make data available and let people find it for themselves. This is a role that serves the long tail of information, because we never know what other individuals might find useful, important or necessary.
  • The Straight News Role. We cannot, even if we wanted to, and should not, cede our professional responsibilities to uncover news. We must know about everything important going on in the communities that we serve, and we should strive to be the first to tell our communities about the important news of the moment (note: no longer of the day, but of the moment). We must still be out in our communities gathering facts and organizing them in a way that is relevant and useful and then reporting the most important facts to our communities.

Previously: Journalism has evolved to fit society’s needs and demands

13 thoughts on “Six roles, or job duties, of modern journalism

  1. Does one of these encompass a “teaching media literacy” (teaching about disinformation? teaching applied epistemology?) role?

    I ask because – to me – this is an area where the press hasn’t been doing its job, but if it’s not part of the press’s job description, …?

    Case in point: a well-organized, industry-funded disinformation campaign that has conveyed its talking points to the public through the mainstream press via “balance”, and subsequently reinforced its message through propaganda media – incl. opinion columns, blogs & other websites.

    Once you have deliberate disinformation muddying the waters of the public’s mind (?), just maintaining high standards for what you report won’t be sufficient to inform the public (since the problem’s not an info deficit; see account of Oreskes’ 2006 AGU talk on Deflecting Disinformation about Climate Change)

    If “building an informed citizenry” is the purpose of the press, maybe we need to add another role for journalists, to make this happen.

  2. (I guess you could classify “Exposing Disinformation” (& innoculating the public against it) as part Ethical, part Guide/Filter, part Understanding And Context, part Conversation Leader, and part Straight News, but when something big falls into a bunch of different categories, to me this makes it less visible – somewhat like camouflage.

  3. Interesting list Howard,I think that you have hit the nail on the head there.To be a journalist in this ever changing media is a continously evolving job.Lets not though lose sight of your No.6,the importance of actually reporting news

  4. What about a public persona role? It’s touched on in your “ethical” section, but I wonder if there should be an additional role? In terms of “the journalist,” there’s an inherent risk of reputation and readership that follows “them” at all times, yet is often ignored. I’m curious, do these same standards apply to blogging as well as tweets? What do you say?

    Forget modern for a second — At what point is it okay for the professional journalist hat to come off and the party hat to come on?

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