Who is a journalist? Ask the Census Bureau

With the rise of blogs and citizen reporters, the debate has raged: Who is a journalist?

Do you have to work for a professional news organization? Do you need to be accredited? Do you need a journalism degree?

Apparently, the Census Bureau has come up with a definition. And I don’t qualify.

Even though I no longer work for a professional news organization, I still consider myself a journalist. I have a journalism degree. I worked for 14 years in the business. I know how to dissect information and report accurately.

For the past two years, I have been working to build a community news site with the help of students and volunteers. It is an unfunded startup that has taken much effort to nurture, especially since I already have a full-time job as an assistant professor. Our independent content is infrequent, but we offer a daily roundup of the best from local media, a way to help local readers sort through the mass of news.

Years ago, as an editor, I led our newspaper’s 2000 Census coverage. So naturally, this year, I wanted to have access to embargoed data to crunch for our site’s news coverage.

But we don’t fit the Census Bureau’s definition.

Embargo access may be granted to reporters, editors, writers, publishers, editorial and news cartoonists and artists, news photographers, producers, librarians, presidents, general managers, videographers, webmasters and other editorial employees who work for qualified news outlets, which include publications, news services, broadcast outlets and news Internet sites that meet the following criteria:

  • Their primary purpose is the dissemination of news.
  • They are regularly issued and supported by advertising or paid subscription and operate with editorial independence from any political, governmental, commercial or special interest.

So volunteers who work for free apparently don’t qualify. What about Janis Krums, who shot the iPhone picture of the plane in the Hudson River? Though not a credentialed journalist, he shot the image used by dozens of news organizations. Or Simon Johnson, the economist whose Baseline Scenario blog is a top resource for financial journalists?

What about sites that don’t have advertising or subscriptions?  The SCOTUS Blog, which conducted the analysis of Sonya Sotomayor’s appellate case decisions, was referenced by several news organizations in their coverage of Sotomayor’s confirmation. It continues to produce some of the most thorough Supreme Court coverage available.

The Census Bureau also has other criteria for online media to become accredited. They must:

  • Belong to a “recognized media organization,” with a specific address and phone number.
  • Have 60 percent original news content, commentary or analysis.
  • Submit two bylined articles published by the site in the previous month.
  • Update a minimum of once a week.

I understand the Census Bureau has to set some standards to prevent every hack from getting access before the bureau is ready for publication. And as a journalist who used to work at a newspaper, I can respect the distinctions the bureau is willing to draw. But as professional news organizations cut the number of journalists, it is becoming incumbent on passionate volunteers to assist with coverage.

Perhaps there’s a simpler solution: Just release the data without any media embargo at all.


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