These thoughts grew from a comment thread at Nieman Lab. The post in question was titled: The news Good Housekeeping seal: What makes a nonprofit outlet legit? Such things as: adherence to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, submitting entries for professional prizes and holding a press credential from a federal or state body were said to be good proxies for legitimacy in journalism.  I objected to this:

I don’t think “professionalism” is a feature of legitimacy at all. We could say it’s one way of attempting to secure legitimacy, but the equation: professional news person = legitimate provider of news does not work. Nor does the reverse: you’re legit if you’re recognizably a professional.

Other than Jayson Blair, is there anyone associated with the New York Times who undermined its legitimacy more than Judith Miller? I can’t think of anyone. And yet after the revelations of what she did in the Plame case came out, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) gave her a First Amendment award. Her lack of legitimacy spread to the society. Are you aware what percentage of SPJ members are in fact public relations people? If you find out, you might be more circumspect.

Submitting for prizes guarantees nothing. They do not belong on your list at all. Nor do credentials. Check out the way the professionals in charge of granting press credentials behave when it comes to getting new providers into the Senate press gallery in DC. If you look into it, you’ll discover thin to zero legitimacy, but a lot of behavior that is typical of professionals. Is the Washington Independent a legitimate news provider? I bet if you looked at it you’d say yes. Find out if they can get credentials.

In reply, the author of the Nieman Lab post, Jim Barnett, said, “Hey, help a fellow. What would you say are some easily discernable, objective criteria to gauge legitimacy? How would you get past the Potter Stewart test?” He was referring, of course, to Justice Stewart’s definition of hard core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”  So this is what I told him:

I know many people love that Potter Stewart quote but I don’t see much of a difference between, “I know it when I see it,” and “Actually, I haven’t a clue.” 

What would you say are some easily discernable, objective criteria to gauge legitimacy?

I’d start with the will to veracity, also known as truthtelling. Truthtelling even when it hurts or causes problems for your friends. Real journalists tell us what happened because it actually happened that way, and not some other way. All forms of legitimacy derive from this one.

Then I’d move on to a manifest concern for accuracy, as in getting it right and correcting it when wrong.

Third pillar: transparency, also called disclosure, so we know where you’re coming from and what your stake is in the matter under review, if any.

Intellectual honesty: like when you paraphrase what Senator Brown says it actually does capture what Senator Brown says. This is sometimes called “fairness,” but I think my term is more descriptive.

Currency, in the sense that you are trying to report what happened recently, to keep up with events and what is known now. Journalism is about the present, not what was true six months or six years ago. Legitimacy in journalism has something to do with a determination to keep us up to date with a shifting world.

Inquiry: not the perfect word but the closest fit I can find. I refer to the drive to find out, to inquire and reveal more than what lies on the surface. We all know of situations in which the person in question didn’t lie but also didn’t try… to find out. That’s what I mean by inquiry: trying to find out. Journalism, to be journalism, must do that.

Utility, sometimes called by another name: public service. Journalists can get into legitimacy problems when they are trying to find out, but finding out serves no public purpose. Their legitimacy is clearest when the public interest is served by what they are striving to reveal to us.

Veracity, accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty, currency, inquiry, utility.  That’s where I would start in attempting to define legitimacy in journalism. Providers of news, information and commentary who devote themselves to those seven things are solid citizens of Legit-a-land.

I have to add one more, but you will probably hate me for it because it will strike you as jargon, and all journalists claim to hate jargon (but “lede” is okay, right?) Anyway, my eighth pillar of legitimacy is polyphonicity. I know: awful term! It means “more than one sound.”

Journalism to be fully legitimate needs to present a plurality of voices, not just one.  I don’t mean to invoke the gods of balance. They are false gods. I mean to suggest that journalism isn’t a monologue. More than one person speaks in it. More than one angle is taken on the object.

Now I am sure you noticed that among my eight key terms for determining legitimacy in journalism one does not find such things as: objectivity, professionalism, “code of ethics,” balance, getting paid, being incorporated as a commercial business, working full time at newsgathering, eschewing opinion, bearing a press pass, or getting certified by the (journalistic) powers that be.

These are shortcuts, and taking shortcuts is not… legitimate!