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What is Journalism? - Definition, Roles & Issues

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  • 0:02 What Is Journalism?
  • 2:05 The Role of Journalism
  • 3:03 Objectivity & Bias
  • 5:09 Verification & Accuracy
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Journalism is an important component in a democratic society. This lesson defines journalism and examines several important roles and issues related to journalism.

What Is Journalism?

One person was taken to the Burn Center at Parkland Hospital after flames ripped through an East Dallas apartment complex.

This was the first line of a current newspaper article. Did you read a newspaper this morning? Maybe you watched the news on television or heard headlines broadcast on the radio. These are forms of journalism. Journalism is the act of gathering and presenting news and information. The term 'journalism' also refers to the news and information itself. It's important to notice the variety of information media today. The news and information can be presented in many different ways, including articles, reports, broadcasts, or even tweets.

Journalism is a form of communication, but it's distinct from other forms. It is unique because it's a one-way message, or story, from the journalist to the audience. It's most unique because the message isn't the journalist's personal story or subjective thoughts. Instead, the journalist acts as a conduit, narrating an objective story about something that happened or is happening, based on his or her observations and discoveries. This type of storytelling comes in many different forms, including:

  • Breaking news
  • Feature stories
  • Investigative reports
  • Editorials
  • Reviews
  • Blogs

Journalism's unique storytelling comes in the form of reporting. To report simply means to convey the facts of the story. Even in editorials and reviews, the journalist is conveying facts about the experience. The story can be analytical or interpretive and still be journalism. In general, reporting comes from interviewing, studying, examining, documenting, assessing, and researching. New journalists are often taught to report on the five Ws, so you'll notice that most pieces of journalism include some or all of these:

  • Who was it?
  • What did they do?
  • Where were they?
  • When did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?

The Role of Journalism

Journalism serves many different roles. Foremost, it serves to inform the public. It's an open medium, meaning the intended audience includes the entire community or public. Once the journalist reports the information - or sends the communication - that information is available to anyone wishing to receive it.

For that reason, journalism is an essential component in a democratic society. The freer the society, like the United States, the more news and information is available to the public. Citizens tend to be well-informed on issues affecting their communities, government, and everyday dealings. On the other hand, North Korea allows only limited access to independent news sources and almost no access to the Internet. The vast majority of news and information comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which reports mainly on statements from the political leadership. This leaves citizens with only one, filtered point of view.

Objectivity & Bias

This type of bias is a key issue in journalism. Journalism is based on objectivity, meaning journalists must make every effort to report the news and information without allowing their preconceptions to influence the stories. There's a general acceptance that journalists, like all people, have inherent personal and cultural biases. These prejudices can be positive, negative, or neutral, and many are subconscious. Some biases are even thought to be organization-wide. For example, many people believe Fox News is biased toward the Republican Party, while MSNBC is biased toward the Democratic Party.

In the early 1900s, especially in the 1920s, there was a concerted push toward greater objectivity in journalism. After years of political propaganda and reporting based simply on 'realism', experts pushed for a consistent process for testing information that more closely resembled a scientific method.

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Additional Activities

Critique the Journalist

In this activity, students will use what they have learned to critique multiple styles of journalism.

Materials

  • Access to multiple types of journalistic material such as:
    • Popular magazines (Teen Fashion, Psychology Today, People)
    • Newspapers (local and nationally recognized)
    • Other periodicals/news magazines (Wall Street Journal, News Day)
    • Internet published news sites

Instructions

  • Choose at least three articles from different styles of journalistic reporting. Make sure at least one is from a popular magazine and one is from an internet news site.
  • For each article, write a brief summary of:
    • The answers to the five 'Ws' given in the lesson.
    • The level of objectivity and lack of bias apparent in the article.
    • Evidence of verification attempts and accuracy in reporting.
  • Now, compare the different articles to each other.
    • Were they all as good at answering the five main questions?
    • Did they all show objectivity and lack of bias?
    • Were they all verified and accurate?
  • If you noticed that one or more articles lacked information or did not perform well on the other requirements, take note of the type of publication it was in.
    • Do you think newspapers offer more journalistic attributes than magazine articles do? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter how well known the source of the material is? Why or why not?
  • Finally, reflect on how journalists can influence their readers through the use of, or lack of use of, good journalism.

Challenge

  • Include a fourth article in your review. This article should come from a source of information that is normally seen as suspect (like a gossip magazine, television program or internet site).
    • How does this rather suspect source compare to the others you have chosen?
    • Does it pass the requirements of objectivity, bias, verification and accuracy?

Example

  • Let's pretend that you have chosen an article in the notoriously hyped periodical The National Enquirer. Your responses might look like this:
    • The five Ws are answered in this article, but in vague terms such as 'last year' instead of a specific date.
    • The journalist does not seem to exhibit any bias and the writing is objective, giving both sides of the issue.
    • Verification is the area in which this piece of journalism weakens drastically. The author verifies information through unnamed sources that have dubious links to the main subjects of the article. It is impossible to tell if the information is accurate based on this article.

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