Phil Lewis: Redefining what we call ‘journalism’

Phil Lewis
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A plaque hangs on a stairwell wall at the University of Missouri, carrying words that were the inspiration for the world’s first school of journalism.

It’s headlined “The Journalist’s Creed.” Eight paragraphs of fundamental beliefs follow.

It was written more than 100 years ago and — like most things in the world of journalism these days — it is being studied, probed, tested and questioned.

Does the creed still ring true? It was written at the dawn of the 20th century. Is it relevant in the 21st?

Two recent events brought to mind the plaque and its creed, which was written by Walter Williams, the first dean of that first journalism school.

In February, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, a professional group dedicated to a free press, changed its name to the Florida Society of News Editors. The member editors redacted p-a-p-e-r from the title.

“The name change recognizes the growing importance of online news organizations and bloggers,” a press release from the new FSNE read.

The release said the renaming will be followed by “an aggressive effort to recruit blogger, online and television members” into its professional ranks.

Meanwhile, up in Washington, D.C., Congress was putting the finishing touches on a bill designed to protect journalists who use confidential sources or who bird dog government and society looking for misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance.

When the bill was drafted it was necessary to define journalism so future courts will know who qualifies as a journalist.

The proposed bill reads:

“The term journalism means the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”

Based on that definition all those people who identify themselves as bloggers and compile their own online blogs qualify. That means in the past 10 or 15 years, thanks to the easy dissemination of news and information to the public via the Internet, there are millions and millions more journalists than in the past. And, there will be millions more in the future.

That is a good thing, if you believe in the importance of ensuring the free flow of information.

Walter Williams did and he left this:

“The Journalist’s Creed”

“I believe in the profession of journalism.

“I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.

“I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

“I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

“I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.

“I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.

“I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.

“I believe that the journalism which succeeds best — and best deserves success — fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid; is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.”

It’s safe to say that Williams knew more than 100 years ago you don’t need a journalism degree to be a journalist. You just need to believe.

Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is plewis@naplesnews.com

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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