Ryerson professor makes the case for clearly defining what qualifies as an act of journalism


Staff Reporter

There are both practical and legal incentives for establishing a clear, concise definition for journalism where none has really existed before, Ryerson School of Journalism chair Ivor Shapiro argues in his new research.

“I’m defining what journalism is,” Shapiro says. “Jon Stewart can do journalism, a brain surgeon can do journalism and I can do journalism. Anybody can do journalism. The question isn’t what a journalist is. The question is when is journalism being done? When is Jon Stewart, for example, doing journalism and when is he doing comedy?”

Shapiro’s new proposed definition, outlined in an article published in a recent issue of Journalism Studies, consists of five functions. A functional definition, he says, should allude to current or recent events as subject matter, breadth of audience, ascertainment of factual accuracy, independence and original work.

“A functional definition makes a difference. Not only in the courts of law, but practically when certain organizations are reluctant to give out press passes anymore. Do we want them to just stop giving out press passes because anybody’s a journalist, or do we want to provide them some tools for determining which people practice journalism?” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s paper, entitled “Why democracies need a functional definition of journalism now more than ever,” explores the centuries-long debate regarding an accurate definition, the unclear and often ambiguous nature of past definitions and the various elements that constitute journalistic work.

“A lot of my research was trying to see whether there were standards for evaluating journalism, and it was motivated by my work as an instructor. Here I am evaluating the journalism of students all the time, and I began wondering what it was based on – my experience or my instincts?” said Shapiro.

Grant vs. Torstar Corp., the landmark 2009 Supreme Court of Canada case, is one of a handful of legal reasons why a contemporary definition is essential, noted Shapiro in an interview. The case began when Ontario property developer Peter Grant sued the Toronto Star for defamation. The jury initially found in favour of Grant, who was subsequently rewarded $1.475 million in damages, but the Toronto Star successfully appealed the ruling using a new defence for libel.

“It is colloquially known as the ‘responsible journalism’ defence, because that’s what it is referred to in Great Britain,” Shapiro said. “But in Canada, the Supreme Court called it the ‘responsible communication in the public interest’ defence. Why? Because the Supreme Court of Canada couldn’t figure out what journalism was.”

Past definitions of the term “journalism” contained similar ideas – editorial responsibility, news and information – but often left those ideas undefined. Additionally, past efforts to define journalism explored elements that did not count as journalism, such as public relations, propaganda and various forms of marketing.

Shapiro admits that his proposed definition – “journalism comprises the activities involved in an independent pursuit of accurate information about current or recent events and its original presentation for public edification” – has its own drawbacks, and that a universally-agreed upon definition is ultimately impossible. The act of discussion, however, is in itself a pivotal and important step, he said.

“Will it be defined to the satisfaction of all journalists and readers? No, but that’s okay. Why does it need to be? There’s probably no universally accepted definition of medicine or architecture.”