Montana Public Radio

Who Is A Journalist, And Who Gets To Decide?

Jan 22, 2021

These are dangerous times for journalists, now labeled "soft targets" by violent extremists, and the profession is coming up with new ways to protect reporters. More bloggers and websites are trying to pass as legitimate sources of news, but are they? Who is a journalist, and who gets to decide?

Listen now on Parsing the Press as journalists Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio discuss these issues.

Sally Mauk Gwen, the country braced this past week for more violence on Inauguration Day, not just in D.C., but potentially in state capitals as well. And violence that thankfully never materialized.

Journalists were prepared as well, taking safety precautions they've never taken before, and all this because reporters have become so-called "soft targets" of the radical right. And the recent insurrection at the Capitol in D.C. is a prime example - someone painted "murder the media," and at least one AP reporter was physically attacked.

He's okay, but Gwen, it's a scary time to be a journalist covering what used to be a rather staid beat of politics.

Gwen Florio It really is, and I think the most disturbing thing is that for years, traditionally, if you identified yourself as a journalist, you were somewhat off limits.

Overseas, when I worked there in conflict zones, everybody would take duct tape and put a big TV on their helmets and their flak vest in hopes of not getting shot, which seemed to work.

Here, we're in a completely different atmosphere now. You don't want to be identified as a journalist. All the safety precautions I've seen put out by the various journalism organizations say keep your press badge in your pocket. Don't use a traditional reporter's notebook. If you are a broadcast journalist, try to use the most minimal gear possible. Just use your phone so you look like everybody else. And that is indeed a departure.

Mauk It's still true, however, that journalists, if you're interviewing someone or gathering information for a story, you're obligated to identify yourself as press.

You don't want to be deceiving people, so it's kind of a fine line to walk, isn't it, that you want to protect yourself, but also not hide who you are? 

Florio Yeah, you've got to be ethical about it. And that was something that was going through my mind when I was watching the riots at the Capitol is, you know, you gotta be there. You have to be a witness to that. And again, but identifying yourself may put you in danger. I think we all saw the really striking footage from Luke Mogelson from The New Yorker, who was kind of within the mob in the Capitol. And the way he dealt with that was just to record. He wasn't doing interviews, so he didn't have to identify himself, but his footage put you right in the middle of that really terrifying scene.

Mauk And I think he was one of only a couple of reporters who actually were inside and recording. There was a television reporter for ITV who also got some amazing footage. But on the whole, reporters stayed out of the melee, in part, I'm sure, to protect their own safety because it was so out of hand.

Florio Which would be the wise thing to do under the circumstances. And again, all of the precautions you see, say, when things take that turn. And it's something you can almost feel when a mob sort of coalesces and things get really dark really fast. You want to get out of there, or at least get to the very edges of things. So I give the folks who were inside tremendous credit for their courage, but I kept thinking as I was watching the footage, "Oh my God, what if they realized who he was?"

Mauk Right. And you don't fault the journalists who did not go inside, I certainly don't.

Florio Absolutely not.

Mauk Another growing issue in journalism today, Gwen, is exactly who is a journalist. Years ago, when I first started going to press conferences, there would be the radio, TV and print reporters all easily identified by their affiliations. Now you can go to a press conference and there might be people there who write an online blog who self-identify as press, but aren't affiliated with anyone but themselves. 

Florio Right, and that really comes up — we're seeing it now as the Legislature's in session — when people want to get press credentials.

The Legislature has some pretty specific guidelines about who qualifies. Bloggers do not, but that doesn't stop people from trying to get those credentials anyway. I think it's really important to emphasize that not getting a press credential doesn't keep you from the Legislature, it just keeps you from floor access. But you can sit in the gallery and watch and still be there.

My own personal line, when I look at who's a journalist and who's not, a lot of the bloggers really traffic just in opinion. They sort of watch what everyone else is reporting and then they put their opinion out there.

What I frequently see from bloggers, both on the liberal and conservative side is, you know, 'why isn't the mainstream media covering this issue?' Well, they are, but they're out reporting and gathering the facts from both sides before they put their report out there.

Mauk Well, a recent example in Montana is the appearance of Tim Ravndal with a press credential at the state capitol, and Ravndal is a far right activist who has an online newsletter called Redoubt News, and he's a journalist, Gwen, about like I'm an Olympic athlete — which is to say he is not. Yet there he was with a press credential.

Florio Yeah, I was really surprised to see that, because again, his publication takes a very specific point of view. It makes no pretense at being unbiased and trying, again, to collect things from both sides, it just puts stuff out there. That particular website, for instance, repeats the lie that antifa was behind the Capitol insurrection. So it makes me really concerned that he gets the same sort of credentials as reporters who were on the ground doing the real work. 

Mauk There are also a growing number of websites trying to pass as news, and one is called the Montana Daily Gazette. And that's a very innocuous-sounding website that is, again, anything but a legitimate news source.

They had this disgusting recent headline, for example, about legislation aimed at transgendered Montanans, and the headline read "The Capitol Has Become A Freak Parade As Montana Considers 'Trans Laws.'" That's an awful headline and that is for sure not journalism.

Florio Not even close. But what's concerning about the Gazette — first of all, its name mirrors that of the Billings Gazette, so someone who's in a hurry might click on that thinking they're getting a local Montana site. You've got to kind of drill down into their website to find out that they very specifically espouse a conservative Christian worldview. And again, that's fine for them, but it does not make them journalists in the very traditional sense of the word.

Mauk And another website that a lot of people read, it's a blog - it's called The Montana Post - and that is a liberal leaning website. But I don't believe The Montana Post author ever identifies as a journalist. He's clear that he is an opinion writer.

Florio Yeah, he's very clear about that, and he's also very clear about where he comes from in terms of his work. He basically will comb several news sites, and then offer his own opinion on what they're reporting.

Mauk So who decides who is a journalist, Gwen, and what are the criteria?

Florio Boy, when I think about that, it's a tough one. For sure, you don't want the government deciding.

I think in general, journalist organizations do a pretty good job of policing themselves. You know, we want to be seen as credible, but again, there are so many different sites now, and what I'd like to say is journalists are people who, once again, try to get both sides of an issue. 

But more and more these days, you see people looking at what I would call the legacy media and saying, 'Oh, no, they only put one side out there,' and you can't convince people that that's not the case. So it's a little disturbing, in some ways, people decide for themselves now. 

Mauk Well as you point out, distrust of traditional news is at an all-time high, but at the same time, consumption of news has never been higher and I'm not sure how we get that trust back, Gwen, except to do a better job of explaining what we do.

Florio I think that's important. I think that's why we're doing this show. And one thing I'd like to put out there is we really would love to entertain questions from the public about how we do our jobs. That's partly why we're here.

Mauk Absolutely. And people can send those comments to sally.mauk@mtpr.org. And this will be an ongoing conversation to be continued next week.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.