Who is a journalist? Could it be someone who works for the agrochemical and biotech giant Monsanto? The Missouri-based company currently has a job opening for what it’s calling a “Corporate Web Journalist,” whose duties would include “helping multiple stakeholders understand and advocate for modern agriculture.”
The title notwithstanding, everything else in the job description seems to call for a marketing or communications specialist whose core responsibilities amount to writing and producing informational material about the company and its business interests — presumably in a manner that reflects well on Monsanto. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it surely offers better pay than the average newspaper. But would the successful candidate really be taking a job as journalist? Again, who is a journalist?
It’s a question that has long dogged the profession (such that it can be defined) and animated the courts — and it’s one that has become only more complex in the digital age. The advent of blogging, for example, eventually gave rise to intense legal haggling over whether or not independent bloggers are journalists. That might seem like a naïve and somewhat trite question in 2017, but it was only a few years ago that a defamation case wrestled with this very question.
“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story,” Ninth District Court Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote in 2014 in deciding that case.
In other words, the courts have traditionally demurred when it comes to defining who is a journalist and who is not, and for the most part, this has worked well. Complications and confusion may be inevitable when anyone is technically a journalist, simply by virtue of saying so, but the alternative is a slippery slope. “Once a ‘journalist’ is defined, then before long the government might start raising the idea of licensing journalists,” the Society of Professional Journalists notes, “which can lead to a form of censorship that is found in other countries.”
And so the definition has remained loose — and grows ever looser. Today, organizations like The Gateway Pundit enjoy White House press access alongside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Last month, The Washington Post reported that the pool reporter assigned to cover Vice President Pence — “that is, the reporter who supplied details about Pence’s daily activities as proxy for the rest of the press corps — was an employee of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.”
Are all of these folks journalists? That’s a question that will divide many Americans as surely as the presidency of Donald J. Trump itself.
But how about a journalist for Monsanto? What sorts of questions would he or she ask the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, or representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture? If scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about the impact of one of Monsanto’s agricultural chemical products on public health, would the company’s journalist report it? What if the concern was over the product of a competitor?
These are fanciful questions, of course, and there’s no indication that reporters from Monsanto will be granted seats among the White House press corps anytime soon. At the same time, many things that have come to pass seemed downright impossible just a few short months ago — and with the proliferation of so-called “fake news” effectively blunting the power of the press as we’ve known it, it seems worthwhile to consider what the word “journalist” really means in the modern age — and particularly as it relates to science coverage. So much of our modern democracy, after all, hinges on the dispassionate investigation and unpacking of complex and technical information, from climate change and childhood vaccinations to genetically modified foods.
Journalists, we like to think, are on the case. But which ones? Which ones are honestly pursuing truth and accountability, and which ones are marketing a political agenda, or a product? A quick search suggests that “journalist” positions are currently available with a wide array of organizations, from the National Safety Council and Virginia Tech to Major League Soccer. The California-based cereal company Kahsi is on the hunt for something called a “Brand Journalist.”
Does any of this matter? Maybe not. Maybe it’s better to focus, as groups like SPJ do, on identifying acts of “journalism,” rather than splitting hairs over defining who is, and who isn’t, a “journalist.” Then again, what’s to suggest that the average reader makes either distinction?
As it stands, a representative for Monsanto suggested that its job listing was more illustrative than anything else: “It’s my understanding that for this position, ‘Corporate Web Journalist’ is being used as it embodies the mindset of the type of person and voice we’re looking for,” wrote Monsanto spokesman Billy Brennan in an email message, “someone who can identify opportunities and tell articulate and engaging stories on various company channels in a timely manner.”
“This is so that we get the right type of applicants,” Brennan added, “and it may or may not end up being that person’s actual job title.”