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Debate in Congress over whether it should pass a federal shield law for journalists has fueled a related debate among those of us who produce news: Just who qualifies as a journalist eligible for protection under such a law?

Media organizations, journalism associations, academics and individuals are hotly engaged in the discourse. Should only those who earn their livelihood producing news qualify? Would it be better to offer protections for "acts of journalism" rather than for journalists themselves? Does adherence to specific professional standards earn one classification as a journalist?

This week, Andrew Beaujon of the Poynter Institute cited two new works in writing about the debate.

Two professors studied numerous scholarly, legal and industry definitions in an attempt to arrive at a single, standard definition.

"A journalist is someone employed to regularly engage in gathering, processing and disseminating (activities) news and information (output) to serve the public interest (social role)," media lawyer and Dayton University assistant professor Jonathan Peters and Missouri School of Journalism professor Edson C. Tandoc Jr. write in their paper, published in the Oct. 8 issue of the journal "Quorum."

The two professors, however, qualify their conclusion. While they believe their definition's inclusion of the activities, output and social role of journalists is "broad enough to include many of the people pioneering new forms of journalism," such as contributors to CNN iReport and editors at Circa, their reference to employment "delivers a fatal blow to the people engaging in many new forms of journalism," including many bloggers and citizen journalists.

Peters and Tandoc write that their definition, if used as the standard that determines who is protected under a federal shield law, "might de-incentivize innovation in news production and distribution."

That's why Free Press campaign director Josh Stearns in a paper he published this month argues we should strive to define acts of journalism rather than apply a single definition to journalists.

Stearns argues in favor of a definition in a House version of the shield law bill.

The version defines journalism as "the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."

"This very functional definition may lack poetry," Stearns writes, "but it provides a flexible litmus test by which to judge acts of journalism."

The difficult part of this debate is that journalism, unlike other professions, requires no specific course completion or professional licensing. In fact, it does not even require that practitioners have a prescribed college degree.

From my perspective, however, it does require specific training and adherence to professional standards to ensure responsible and informed behavior given the import of the public service journalists are entrusted to perform.

Does the journalist follow a code of ethics requiring that we seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable?

Has a story been carefully researched and does the journalist demonstrate an understanding of the topic area?

Is there a clear distinction between opinion and fact?

Are issued presented from multiple perspectives with sufficient context and perspective?

Is a particular story fair and balanced?

Are any conflicts of interest clearly stated?

At The Salt Lake Tribune, these are the questions every journalist asks themselves each day. They set the standard we want our readers to hold us to.

Stearns makes an excellent point in his paper when he says the public needs to weigh in.

"It's time to move this debate out of the pages of academic journals and into the public sphere," he writes. "People everywhere have a deep stake in this debate, both as media makers and as news consumers, and we should engage them in these conversations more deeply. They are not just our audience, but also our allies in the fight ahead."

The public, after all, is who we work for.

The goal of all journalism is to inform so citizens can make responsible decisions about their governments, their communities and their own lifestyle choices.

News consumers would do well to ask all these questions themselves in deciding which sources they rely on for their news if they truly want to make informed decisions.

An interview with The Tribune's former editor

Nancy Conway, who retired last month after 10 years at the paper, talks about the role the newspaper continues to play here in Utah in a Columbia Journalism Review article. You can read it here.

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