It's become a familiar, yet unresolved, question: what, if anything, distinguishes an act of journalism from other stuff? Ivor Shapiro has a thought on that, with a little help from the Bard of Avon.

It's become a familiar, yet unresolved, question: what, if anything, distinguishes an act of journalism from other stuff? Ivor Shapiro has a thought on that, with a little help from the Bard of Avon.


I have been urged by some colleagues and students to post here a sonnet I wrote last week.


True, this is not a poetry site, and true, I don't  know diddly about writing sonnets. And true, the work is not especially original (though I'm pretty sure the original author won't be sue me).

Therefore, some context is in order.

The Master of Journalism seminar in law/ethics  that I team-teach at Ryerson with Brian Macleod Rogers has wrestled more than once this  term with various forms and implications of the question: what is journalism? You'd think we'd know the answer by now, but no one really does. Many say it's an outmoded question — you know: practically anyone who posts nonfiction to the social web is a journalist now.

Which seems to make it kinda stupid to think of oneself as teaching, studying or practising journalism, which lots of people still (newsflash!) do. I, unsurprisingly, have a bias toward thinking that journalism continues to exist as a distinct function and social mandate. But I do think it’s almost self-evident, judging by the sheer number of people still relying for news and other information on organizations that employ people called journalists, that journalism still, well, exists! Yes, its forms and archetypes have changed dramatically (and not for the first time), but most or all of the work is still recognizably distinct from much other equally important stuff that goes on in the information marketplace.

But how so? That's where the sonnet I wrote for class comes in. Stay with me.

Even when journalists were undoubted gatekeepers of vital information, the job was tough to define, and the definition has become more elusive since the (surely welcome) loss of the fifth estate's monopoly on mass-media reporting and commentary.

So, what is an act of journalism? I have elsewhere proposed a fivefold definition, according to which journalism, or at least quality journalism (in any medium whether textual, visual or otherwise) is a work that involves all of the following elements:


– Independent discovery (the topic of my iambic pentametric ditty – wait for it);
– A disciplined concern for accuracy;
– A story-telling form that is open to examination (transparency, attribution, you get it);
– A hankering for clarity of communication; and
– Uncensored (or at least self-uncensored) presentation of information.

It's not just for logical and chronological reasons that discovery comes first in the elements of any act of rhetoric, including journalism.  What I proposed to my class last week is that INDEPENDENCE (oh, sorry, am I shouting?) in discovery is also primary in an ethical sense: it is the root of a journalist's distinct moral identity.

I suggested that independent discovery is the keystone of journalistic practice, the moral source from which the rest (the manner and rigour of verification, interpretation, style and presentation) all flow, and without which all those elements would be fatally flawed or misdirected.

Stubborn, ornery don't-tell-me-what-to-be-interested-in-or-what-questions-to-ask-or-where-to-ask-them independence. I’m not talking here about worthy-sounding and unachievable goals like "balance" or "fairness," whatever they might mean, nor about sometimes silly-seeming reportorial rituals of slavish attribution. Nor am I talking exactly here about the wise methodological principles of a discipline of verification and “objective method.”

I’m talking more simply of independence in approach – independence in conduct.

Independence, as in: a steadfast insistence on minimizing those ties, loyalties or duties that might diminish one’s capacity to pursue truths, and to recognize them when they're in sight.

I sensed this rather traditional-ish idea would be a tough sell to a class of smart, critically thinking, digital natives, which is why the argument seemed to call for more than mere prose. So (no, really, no need for the drumroll, you are too kind) here it is – Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, rewritten for reporters:

Let me not to the courtship of true facts
Admit impediment. Truth is not truth
Which alters within alteration's pacts
Or bends for the financier to soothe.
O no! It is the magnet for the hack
(Not burning light nor shade its draw shall break)
– Truth is the buoy of each reporting tack
'Spite squalls of scruple, hearts that ache.
Truth's no movement's Fool: though burn for action
Melts reluctant doors, unbidden clues might come:
Truth wavers not with interests' hesitation
But bears it out e'en to the edge of doom.
     If this be error, else my logic flopped,
     I never writ, nor presses ever stopped.

Reviews welcome, whether in rhyming couplets or plain old sentences. Just click the comment button, please.

Ivor Shapiro, ethics editor of J-Source, is chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University and chairs the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.