Friday, September 23, 2011

License fails to address issue

Part 2: Misdirected anger

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
When journalists start talking about licensing and credentials, at the surface, the discussion focuses on preserving and enforcing professional standards, such as those espoused in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The thinking is that a formal rite of passage of some kind will ensure that those standards will be held firmly and thereby raise the quality of our craft.


While I applaud the sentiment to raise the bar for and the credibility of this profession, as I noted several days ago, licensing would be an untenable surrender of the press freedoms we have fought so long to preserve. For licensing to be effective, it would require the weight of law to ensure compliance, which essentially would give government, at some level, oversight of those who serve as watchdogs over it.

I believe I’ve thoroughly stated my position on the foolishness of such an attempt, even though I personally believe that we journalists must do more to promote the integrity of our craft.

Abiding by and mentoring others using the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics as a guide is one. Another, of which I just recently became aware, is taking the pledge with the Tao of Journalism. Journalists registering on the website agree to be held accountable as they pledge to be:

  • Transparent about who we are, what we do, our associations and such;
  • Accountable, which means not only trying to ensure the information we as journalists report, but also to take pains to correct it when we err;
  • Open to viewpoints that differ from our own.
As part of the Tao pledge, the Internet community is urged to watch the registered journalists to make sure they are good to their pledge, and to report them if they fail..

Ethical lapses provoke anger

But back to why the discussion of licensing surfaces from time to time.

Anger becomes the spark that ignites the discussion any time some journalist goes astray — perhaps plagiarizing another writer or writing fiction and passing it off as news. Certainly the News of the World voicemail hacking scandal played a role in the most recent discussion.

The anger is a righteous anger, too. What professional who takes pride in his or her craft does not also take umbrage when others in the profession take short cuts, play fast and loose with ethics or simply are so intent on self-advancement that they believe the “rules” or standards do not apply to them?

The anger is directed as much at the breach as it is at the effect it has on the credibility of a profession I think the public remembers more for its failings than for the good that comes from it. From that perspective, journalism desperately needed someone to handle public relations when the depth and breadth of the News of the World scandal finally came to a head earlier this year.

Fear plays a role, too

But in these times, even a righteous anger can be, and often is, also colored by fear.

Since 2007, tens of thousands of newspaper employees, many of them journalists, have lost their jobs as the Great Recession upended an industry that already had been rattled to its core by the advent of the information superhighway beginning in the mid-1990s.

The job losses peaked a couple of years ago, but there are worries they may escalate again this year thanks to the continued financial uncertainty in the world today.

With so many of us out of work — and few job prospects around the corner, thoughts of job preservation are not far from anyone’s minds these days, particularly in journalism. The fear is only exacerbated for those who have worked for companies that pushed through round after round of layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs and other cost-cutting. In such companies, those employees who remain may end up feeling less like employees and more like indentured servants without hope of working off the debt, yet under the strain of an every-increasing workload and the fear that more cuts, perhaps even their own, lie ahead.

Anger spreads: Citizen journalists and the blogosphere

Throw in two more ingredients to further stoke the anger — citizen journalists and bloggers, who many perceive as a threat as much to the credibility of journalism as to news jobs. At this point, you have a group of dedicated but stressed people, many already angry at circumstances over which they have no control and some, perhaps many, living in fear from day to day that this particular shift may be the last one they work.

The result? Fear. Anger. An amplified desire for job preservation/security.

Who’s to blame?

Citizen journalists, bloggers and shoddy journalists casting disrepute upon the profession? News organizations run by unscrupulous businessmen whose only concern is the bottom line and who would be more than happy to dump the experienced (higher-paid) professionals in exchange for cheap or free citizen journalists and bloggers (in my early days in the profession, those of us who were recent college grads were the cheap labor the veteran journalists feared)?

Citizen journalists and bloggers seem to have become the modern whipping boys of journalism. Historically, the citizen journalist helped birth the profession. Bloggers largely are the prolific letter writers who graced the op-ed pages of community papers in days gone by, opining on the news of the day locally, regionally, nationally.

News organizations want to harness these people in the hopes of cutting costs. Some hope to drawn in these individuals as providers of free content — meaning they won’t have to pay a professional journalist to provide polished, solid reporting but instead rely on these citizen journalists or bloggers to write for free, their only reward name recognition, a byline.

While I certainly believe the profession needs to be concerned about the difference between the professional journalist vs. citizen journalists and bloggers, it’s more of an issue of branding than of control — and licensing is about control.

Further, some of the anger directed toward this collective group has been vitriolic, as if they should be forced to stop what they do. My response: Why would you possibly want to try to do that? What you are saying is in direct opposition to the very freedoms we enjoy as journalists. Journalists, the public watchdogs, have no special rights that elevate us above John Q. Public — which includes the aforementioned groups.

Shallow culture? Shallow media?

That these bloggers in particular have become so popular in recent years says something about public consumption, and it may say something about our craft and how we perform it as well.

One point is that the media is simply a reflection of the culture, and if the culture has gone shallow, the media likewise will be shallow and intellectually vapid. I certainly think this is part of the problem.

But I think another element is that in many communities, journalism has become institutional: There’s only one real game in town, and when there is no competition to keep us at our best, it become very easy to fall into complacent patterns that satisfy the basics of journalism but go little further. To go the extra steps takes forethought, planning and sometimes time. Investigative journalism, for example, is not done in 24 hours. It can take weeks, sometimes months to root out the information that leads to truth.

Fixing the problems

The solution?

It’s not licensing. Nor is it a simple solution.

First, there must be greater emphasis within the profession on ethics — and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is an excellent model. Also an excellent undertaking is the Tao of Journalism registry and pledge, which models transparency for the purpose of holding on to and raising the bar for all journalists.

There also must be a greater effort within the profession to mentor new or young journalists — both in terms of ethical standards and in terms of training them to be great reporters and editors.

These points all go toward re-affirming quality and high standards within the profession. But that won’t be enough.

The next link in the chain is marketing — helping our readers and viewers and listeners and users know who we are, what we stand for, and why we are more trustworthy than the good-intentioned by unskilled blogger who is getting a lot of page views simply because his politics are appealing.

That, I think, is where we start. It’s not as simple as the concept of licensing, nor is it a neat and clearly cut model. But it addresses at least some of the concerns.

Of course, it would be nice if the news organizations took the pledge as well, not just in terms of how they approach journalism, but how they treat their employees — in good times and bad

The last issue is one we as journalists cannot fix. But as members of society, if we’re out there encouraging others to read, to think, to get involved in their communities, then maybe my fear about cultural shallowness will evaporate with time.