Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


Would the Real Journalists Please Stand Up!1

Florian Sauvageau*

Media — and journalists have a central role in political life. In principle, they facilitate well informed citizens participating efficiently in the public affairs of the City. What types of journalist? What media? In what context? For what kind of democracy?

It will be understood, when reading the title of this paper, “Would the real journalists please stand up!,” that it is tongue in cheek. Of course, there is no genuine or ungenuine journalist, but this title is relevant to my point related to the difficulty of defining journalism and fixing the role of journalists in the political process. My 1986 version of the Petit Robert dictionary mentions that a journalist is a person who collaborates in the editing of a journal. My recent Larousse includes “audiovisual” as an almost legal definition, not unlike the one set up by the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec; a journalist is a “person whose main occupation, performed on a regular basis and paid for, is to perform journalistic activities in one or more of the written and audiovisual media.” We have not moved very far with that. What is common, then to the editor of La Presse or the Globe and Mail and the chronicler of gastronomy in the same newspapers? What is common to the reporter of news items on Télévision Quatre Saisons, or City TV in Toronto, and the financial chronicler of the Report on Business of the Globe and Mail or of Les Affaires? Nevertheless we say they are all journalists. In various ways, each is contributing to the democratic process.

Twenty years ago, in a study done for the Kent Commission on Daily Newspapers, Simon Langlois and I proposed a typology of journalists which distinguished among four “species” or groups: educators, invested with a “mission,” reporters, analyst-surveyors; and seducers (Langlois and Sauvageau, 1982). Our survey dealt with journalists working in the print media in Québec. There were a greater number of educators at Le Devoir, the seducers were found in tabloids such as Le Journal de Montréal and Le Journal de Québec, or in the sports sections of all daily newspapers. Analyst-surveyors were numerous at La Presse and Le Soleil. The reporters, who prefer to confine themselves to repeating what their sources tell them, were found mostly in the regional press, where a direct and constant relationship between the journalist, his environment and his sources places a restriction on his ability to manoeuvre and his freedom; this confines him to the role as notary of current events.

The educator on the one hand, the seducer on the other. I used to tell my students that the journalist is a tightrope walker, balancing, on the one hand, the mission of public service and information assigned to him, concerned with democratic vitality and social responsibility, but, on the other hand, working for a firm whose objectives are more and more devoted to profits. The journalist is this tightrope walker, bound to his “civic” mission of providing information, but aware that he is part of a competing market, concerned with consumption, entertainment and leisure, all of which enlist takers more easily than public service content. In a world of exhibition and entertainment, where the best way of attracting the public is sought (by the so-called “economy of attention”), if the journalist does not succeed in being interesting, be it in the electronic or print media, he will be “zapped” rapidly for something else.

The journalist will be torn between two loyalties. He is under a formal contract with the medium that is his employer, but is bound by another contract, implicit and moral, which links him to a public that, according to journalistic ideals, he has an obligation to inform. How to reconcile that responsibility (some senior journalists speak of “vocation”) and the status of an employee in an enterprise whose particular interests occasionally, if not often, do not coincide with public interest?2 What is the influence of the enterprise on how journalism is practised? The journalist is also working in a particular milieu, in a society whose cultural traits and political environment are factors not to be neglected, and which contribute in their own way to define how journalism is practised.

1. journalists, media, society

It is interesting to go back to what Balzac had to say about journalism. In his Monographie de la presse parisienne, first published in 1843 and re-issued in 1991 by Arléa Publisher, he talks about how journalism is moulded by society: “The Press of London does not see the world in the same way that the Parisian one does: its approach is peculiar to England, which is rather selfish in every matter. This selfishness can be called patriotism, since patriotism is nothing other than the selfishness of that particular country. There is thus a huge difference between English journalists and French journalists. An Englishman is first English, then journalist. A Frenchman is first journalist, then French.”

Chapter 3, continued >


grubstreet books FreeCounter