Monday, September 19, 2011

Licensing would kill journalism

Part I: Government can’t oversee the watchdog

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The words shocked and alarmed are too strong to describe my reaction to a discussion thread begun among the Society of Professional Journalists group on the professional networking site, LinkedIn. But certainly I was annoyed and more than a little concerned that, once again, someone within the profession was advocating that journalists be licensed.

The discussion centered on the question “Should journalists be licensed?” and was linked to a post, No, licensing journalists isn’t the answer, by Mathew Ingram on GigaOm. Ingram’s piece is insightful and worth reading.

The discussion arises from time to time, and I’ve come to associate it with periods of layoffs within the industry. As I’ve heard or read the arguments advancing the idea of licensing over the past 30 years, job security seemed to be a common, underlying thread: To assure continued quality journalism, the argument goes, there needs to be in place a mechanism to ensure that quality (experienced) journalists are rehired during economic recovery. According to that line of thought, this will force publishers who otherwise would be eager to hire recent (unlicensed) college graduates at a lower wage to hire experienced, license professionals, thereby preserving the quality and integrity of journalism (not to mention jobs).

The discussion often has erupted, too, after a scandal surfaces involving journalists, such as the recent News of the World phone-hacking scandal. In the aftermath, there always seems to be a few in this profession who apparently believe the had the guilty party(ies) been better indoctrinated in terms of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, they would not have strayed.

But these days, there is an interesting turn — at least in the LinkIn discussion in which I participated over the past week or so — much of the ire has been directed at “citizen journalists” and bloggers, which many journalists believe have eroded confidence in journalism today. These critics want some kind of means to differentiate the citizen journalist or blogger from the professional journalists, who stick to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The bigger problem, however, would be licensing. You cannot effectively license without getting the government involved. And that slippery slope is untenable to freedom of the press.

Some in this discussion suggested leaving the government out of the equation and instead putting together something similar to the bar exam that lawyers take, or a peer review panel to issue credentials. But there is a fault in such options: Without the support of the weight of law and the penalties the law affords, the outcome of such an exam or peer review would be virtually meaningless.

Regardless, government oversight of that process at any level, whether in terms of the actual licensing or in terms of enforcement, would be the first step in an all-out surrender of the press freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution.

The press cannot be a watchdog overseeing a government that oversees it.

Further, the media, sometimes called the Fourth Estate, are supposed to represent the citizenry. It’s important to note here that the rights afforded to journalists in terms of gathering public information are no greater than the rights of John Q. Public. Journalists, in theory, however, have been trained how to tap that information tree, as well as how to navigate the law as it pertains to libel and slander and even trespassing. Still, journalists by and large have to jump through the same hoops as The Everyman does to get the information we use to weave into stories about our communities, our schools, our government.

But if licensing were imposed, the regulating body more likely than not would be governmental or quasigovernmental. That creates the specter of a media controlled in some way, shape or form by the government. If I were to write something critical of a local governing official who had the right connections, I could face the threat of losing my license for trying to do my job, part of which is being a public watchdog.

That is the slippery slope I mentioned earlier, and the one which any journalist worth his salt should fear mightily. When we surrender out freedoms, even if we do so with the best of intentions, those freedoms are gone. And there is a price to pay for that.

If you consider for a moment what we as a nation went through on 9/11, and the clampdown on freedoms in this country that followed. The government gained broader authority to listen in on telephone conversations. Security needs outweigh personal liberties as airports now — we are required to remove our shoes and have them checked before we can enter an airplane, and strip searches seem to be more common today than they were 10 years ago. Then there are whole-body scanners that have many people worrying about what, exactly, those TSA agents really are looking at as we walk through the gates.

The bottom line is that licensing journalists carries far greater risks than benefits.

Further, while the intent behind the idea of some kind of peer review panel issuing credentials is laudable, it is fraught with problems that make it, at best, impractical, and more likely irrelevant.

First is the underlying assumption that publishers/news organizations would agree to abide by something like this. Frankly, I don’t see any compelling reason for why they would. It would be potentially more costly, and the relevance of such a license or credential would be lost on the general public. Those are the folks, ostensibly, we would want to know about those credentials but who have no real reason to care.

On the impractical side is the idea of establishing a nationwide standard (which means a test) for journalists, as well as peer review panels in each state to issue credentials or licenses.

Further, the Society of Professional Journalists is not rich: Who would pay for this? With some notable exceptions, journalism is a low-paying profession. I’m not certain the burden of a licensing fee would be well-received — particularly among the thousands of journalists who have been laid off in the past three years.

But I also have a real problem with the idea of the Society of Professional Journalists having some kind of role in the administration of such a process. It is my firm belief that the Society of Professional Journalists is tainted in its capacity to regulate its membership. My opinion on that stems from a discussion board in which I participated in the spring. The discussion revolved around comments noted journalist Helen Thomas made in regard to Israel. (See Needling in threads: Discussion board threats surprise).

So I do not see licensing as a reasonable measure at all. Likewise, there are significant problems with the alternative that has been pitched in this thread.

I have said before and I will say it again: The best we can do as journalists is to diligently espouse and put into practice the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, to mentor those who are coming into the craft, and to question our peers — and expect them to question us — when questions arise about truth, integrity, ethical behavior.

More on this later this week.