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Who's a journalist? Take notes: You might be surprised

As the nation's media descend on Boston for the Democratic National Convention, the Democrats face an old problem: Who is and who isn't a journalist?

Officially, the Democrats decide on press credentials: which scribes, bloggers, on-air correspondents, and off-air producers and camera crews should have access to the action. Implicit is deciding what constitutes journalism, and who is and isn't practicing it.

The First Amendment might seem to promise something akin to absolute freedom for the press, but the reality is not so simple. And it's getting more complicated.

Twelve years ago, back when George W. Bush's father was president, you had to be hired by a company that owned a printing press or held a license to broadcast television or radio to prove you were a journalist.

No more. Now anyone with a website can publish and write. As the number of outlets has increased, so have the standards and styles of the media.

Is someone from E! Entertainment a journalist? Is Bill O'Reilly a journalist or a political propagandist? What about Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Moore? There are moments in his film ''Fahrenheit 9/11" in which Moore seems to behave like a journalist, but at other times he is a celebrity or satirist.

This year the Democrats expanded the accreditation rolls to include bloggers -- people who write personal Web columns, some of whom may consider themselves journalists, some of whom may not.

My colleague Bill Kovach and I have spent a number of years thinking about what constitutes a journalist and journalism.

The proper question is not whether someone calls himself or herself a journalist. Anyone can be a journalist and some may be, whether they like it or not.

The question is whether their work constitutes journalism. Many folks who say they are not journalists may have assumed the responsibilities and legal burdens of the news media if the work they do amounts to journalism. In the end, the public, not the practitioner, decides.

So what constitutes journalism?

A journalist tries to tell the literal truth and get the facts right, does not pass along rumors, engages in verifying, and makes that verification process as transparent as possible.

A journalist's goal is to inspire public discussion, not to help one side win or lose. One who tries to do the latter is an activist.

Neutrality is not a core principle of journalism. But the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.

A journalist's loyalty to his or her audience, even above employer, is paramount.

There are other principles of journalism, but these are the key ones to consider as the two tribes -- the political media and the professional political class -- gather this week.

The convention is a reminder of another principle of the news media: Journalism evolved out of the Enlightenment principally to help people govern themselves. When people became sovereign, they needed more information to judge leaders and public events. About 40 years after the first newspapers were born, the term ''public opinion" was first used.

There is another implication of all this. The quality of our journalism and our democracy, as Joseph Pulitzer noted nearly a century ago, will rise and fall together.

Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists

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