This week’s news that the Huffington Post hired former NFL wide receiver Donte Stallworth to cover politics and national security has drawn plenty of criticism for several reasons; Stallworth pled guilty to DUI manslaughter in 2009, has made questionable comments about 9/11 conspiracies in the past and doesn’t have a journalism background. However, while all of those are valid complaints about him to an extent, none of them should preclude him from doing this job. In particular, his lack of journalism experience may not be a hindrance, provided that he’s willing to do actual journalism and not just provide talking head (or writing head, in this case) hot takes.
It’s worth noting that journalism is a profession with a multitude of entry points, and they each have their own value. It absolutely can be advantageous to go to journalism school for an undergraduate or advanced degree (or both), which can give you a strong theoretical grounding in the profession, but there are many people who have been just as successful without J-school, gaining their experience from hands-on journalism work in the field.
Beyond that, the rise of the blogosphere in particular has widened journalism, allowing those whose life and career experiences are from other areas to contribute more easily. That doesn’t mean all bloggers are (or want to be) doing journalism, but many are in one way or another, from doing their own reporting to offering insight and analysis in a journalistically responsible manner, and many have used that as a way to earn more conventional media gigs.
From this corner, this trend has largely been beneficial; it’s widened the pool of writers and the styles of writing out there, and it’s brought a lot of relevant experience to journalism that may not have been there initially. Thus, saying Stallworth can’t do this job just because he doesn’t have a journalism degree is a problematic criticism.
Journalism is, and should be, a relatively wide-open field. The role of journalism is to provide news and analysis, and while a formal journalism degree can be an asset in doing so (and particularly in doing so fairly), it’s not the only way to go. Our modern media world has journalists who come from scientific backgrounds, from number-crunching backgrounds, from historical backgrounds, from fine arts-focused backgrounds and many more, and that’s helped to improved the depth and quality of the journalism out there.
Moreover, saying that former NFLers can’t practice journalism is the reverse of saying that those who didn’t play sports professionally can’t analyze them. A background in one career is one thing, and it can be a qualification, but it’s not usually one in and of itself. Just because Emmitt Smith played in the NFL doesn’t mean he’s a great analyst; just because Skip Bayless came from a print journalism background doesn’t mean he’s currently a great journalist. The ranks of sports commentary should be open to those who didn’t play the game, and journalism should be open to Donte Stallworth. While his background isn’t in covering politics, that doesn’t mean he won’t be good at it, and it doesn’t mean he won’t productively add to the conversation.
The key question is if Stallworth will actually try to adopt journalistic methods, though. That’s not to say specifically that he has to be out there gathering information or breaking news every day; it seems likely his pieces will be more analysis-driven, and that’s a valuable role as well. However, columnists of any sort still need to be informed, and they need to be responsible. If Stallworth can commit himself to researching and to offering thoughtful analysis that deserves to be printed, this could work out well. If he elects to go with “This is my opinion, and my opinion is important because I used to play in the NFL,” this won’t be as valuable.
Perhaps even more importantly, Stallworth will have to be careful what he writes. The aforementioned September 11 comments he made on Twitter a few years back indicated not only a lack of research, but a lack of thought about how they’d be received. Hopefully he’s learned from that. If not, the Huffington Post had better assign him to a good editor.