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The Neda video and the definition of journalism

Writing at Gawker, John Cook argues that the decision to give a George Polk award to the unidentified (wo)man who caught Neda Agha-Soltan's death on video raises some big questions about what it means to practice "journalism":

[W]hen you start handing out awards that were created to "honor special achievement in journalism" with an emphasis on "investigative and enterprise work that is original, requires digging and resourcefulness and brings results" to works that consist of finding yourself next to a horrible thing and pulling your camera phone out of your pocket—well, what's the point of calling anything journalism anymore?

There isn't one! But that's claim that you expect to hear from folks who celebrate the deprofessionalization of the news media and increased unmediated access to mass communications technology. When it comes from the proprietors of a 61-year-old award that's long served as part of an institutional infrastructure that vests control of the news environment to a cloistered caste of pedigreed journalists, it's kind of confusing. Self-undermining, even....

The Neda video is valuable because it's the only record of the murder and the most graphic record of the regime's violence. But that value derives not from the videographer's efforts, or even bravery. It derives from the fact that there's no other video of it. If the video had come from, say, a nearby surveillance camera rather than a cell phone, it would be just as valuable. But who would get the Polk?

This is interesting stuff--but I've got a couple problems with Cook's analysis. First, the exclusivity he's talking about has always been a standard of journalistic worth: many iconic photos got to be that way because (to paraphrase Cook) there was no other photo of the event pictured.

Also: it's actually not surprising that the Polk Awards, with this particular citation, are pushing the limits of what "journalism" means. Remember: they did exactly the same thing two years ago, when Joshua Marshall won a Polk for Talking Points Memo's coverage of the US Attorney firing scandal, thereby becoming a case study in new-media success. 

These two Polk awards--plus other examples of old-media broadmindedness, e.g., the Pulitzer committee's decision to consider online-only publications--may be a bit self-undermining, as Cook argues. Anything that further destabilizes the professional media's monopoly on the news is. But if the alternative is sticking with a stodgy, antiquated version of what "journalism" means, that's a risk worth taking.

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