Archive for July, 2007

Journalists and certification: An idea whose time has come?

Please note: Some of SPJ’s longstanding members and national leaders have, throughout the years, debated the concept addressed here. For the most part, they’ve shot it down without ever taking it to SPJ’s much larger membership for debate. I think it’s time to change that — especially given the rise of technology and the current state of the news industry. I urge you to participate in this discussion. Your input is invaluable. Thanks so much.

SPJ’s president always gets a WHOLE BUNCH of e-mail. This year, one question has popped up from all sorts of different corners:

“Who is a journalist?” I have been asked — and asked over and over again.

Clearly, the rise of digital media challenges old ways of thinking about who deserves the title. But if you ask me, today’s bloggers and online-only newsies are a much greater reflection of the people (think pamphleteers) the First Amendment was crafted to protect than are journalists working for well established, traditional (all right, “mainstream”) news organizations.

As far as I’m concerned — and a lot of people won’t like reading this — a journalist is someone who is gathering information for the purposes of distributing it. Is that a brroooooaaad definition? Absolutely. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s the definition media lawyers routinely press the courts and lawmakers to recognize). But journalism is for everyone, not just those who make their primary living from it.

So, methinks the better question for those of us fighting to improve and protect responsible and ethical journalism to ask is, “Who is a ‘professional’ journalist?”

I know. I know. Journalism is a trade, not a profession. But if journalists who are formally trained and who make their primary living by working in the news business are going to differentiate themselves from the rapidly rising number of truly irresponsible hacks out there (who are, arguably journalists) and retain the public’s trust, they need to give “professionalization” some serious thought.

If SPJ wants to find new ways to remain highly relevant to the larger news industry, its members will not brush off this idea without serious consideration.

I am a fan of Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (all right, he was my ethics professor …) and author of The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. He writes (and I’m pretty sure he’ll forgive me for reproducing so much of his text given the questions being put before you):

“Certification seems to be at odds with our libertarian tradition.It sounds like a step toward licensing. But, on further examination and discussion, some possible benefits (already have been) identified and acknowledged.

“A certificate is basically a piece of paper that says some recognized agency has examined a person’s ability and found him or her qualified in certain areas and at certain levels of skill. A high school diploma is a certificate, and it is one most employers, including the U.S. Army, recognize. If nothing else, it sorts the good risks from the bad. At the same time, it does not make it impossible for the non-holder to get a job, and it certainly doesn’t make it illegal. It is a way of communicating information that follows a standard definition.

“If we think of certification as a form of communication, then it makes quite a good fit to our libertarian leanings and our desire for openness. Communication requires language, and to use language we need definitions. A certification program would enable a job applicant to deonstrate to a potential employer some concrete and instantly understandable evidence of a specified level of skill. Computer professionals have already found this concept useful, and a number of private training instutitions have sprung up to create certification programs in specific computer skills.

“Journalism schools are already under pressure to provide midcareer training so that those who graduated before the compuer’s use became so common feel less disadvantaged in comparison to new, computer-ready graduates. A certification program would be a logical part of a midcareer training program. And both the schools and the midcareer students should be comfortable with it since a journalism degree is itself a form of certification. So, for that matter, is a passing grade in any specific skills course.

“Who will step up and volunteer (to devise certification programs)? Specialists in fields that are easy to define but hard to learn would make good candidates. In 1998, the medical editor of ABC News, Timothy Johnson, made a compelling argument for certification of medical journalists.

“‘Unlike the reporting of standard news, which requires general journalistic skills and familiarity with the subject matter,’ he said, ‘good medical-news reporting requires additional and very specific skills in the understanding of biostatistics and epidemiology.’

“Johnson, who is a physcian and holds a master’s degree in public health, said not all medical journalists would need as much formal training as he has had. But he argued for ‘some kind of system to ensure that those who wish to become medical journalists have a basic knowledge of the subject and some way of certifying them that would be recognized by employers and the reading and viewing and listening public.

“A precedent exists in television. Many TV weathermen are certified meteorologists by the American Meteorological Society. Getting accurate information about developments in medicine is surely at least as important as getting reliable weather information.

“Biologists and social scientists alike are starting to agree that moral systems are formed and persist because they have survival value for the social groupings tha create them. Journalism’s traditional value set was based on the economic and mechanical constraints of the newspaper business. New information technology is forcing us to experiment with new ways of working, and that necessarily means experimenting with new ways of defining and organizing our occupational specialties. Professionalism is a higher form of organization toward which the increasing and more complex responsiblities of journalism invevitably will push us. It is a necessary condition for our survival, but by no means a sufficient one. Having well-qualified workers does no good if industry won’t pay enough to attract them. In 2002, entry-level newspaper salaries declined in current as well as inflation-adjusted dollars.

“The corruption of professional functions by corporations and partnerships has become quite visible in the more established professions such as accounting and medicine. A professional is a flesh-and-blood person who can empathize with his or her customers and suppliers and feels the need for social support in the community. A corporation possesses the legal characteristics of a person but has ‘no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked’ and therefore lacks the humanistic concerns of a real person. But if business — including the news business — is going to be reformed, the initiative should come from those souls and bodies who toil in the field ith professional responsibilities in mind.

“If journalism is to survive, it will need a professional apparatus as one of the tools in the fight. Trying to reform investors, editors and publishers is a good idea, but let’s not wait for those people to change their ways. Those of us who practice or teach journalism at ground level will make progress at greater speed and certainty if we also organize to reform ourselves. If we can do that, then the next generation of journalists will be ready to work when the process of natural selection chooses the new media forms where trust and social responsiblity prevail.”

NFL: National Football Losers

The National Football League has devised a new rule so offensive to journalists and ethical journalism that I urge all SPJ members to complain about it.

This money-grubbing outfit plans to require all photojournalists working the sidelines to wear red, NFL-issued vests emblazoned with the logos of advertisers, such as Canon and Reebok. The new rule is set to go into effect next month.

Talk about reason to throw a penalty flag.

“We’re not going to become walking billboards,” said David Shribman, executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, according to an article issued by the National Press Photographers Association.

The NFL has devised other rules that would limit news organizations’ ability to present video game footage on their Web sites (for example, the NFL says you can’t show clips more than 45 seconds long, leave them posted for more than 24 hours or archive them online …).

The idealist in me thinks it would be GREAT if news organizations boycotted these games — and any other sports leagues that act with utter disregard, even contempt, for responsible, ethical journalism.

I long for an editor or producer who says: “You know what? We’re not playing along. Ignoring you rather than meeting your ridiculous demands is championing press independence and freedom. That is of far more importance to this nation — and much more of a public service — than reporting from your sidelines.”

Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. But that’s not going to stop me — or SPJ — from speaking up about this one. I hope you’ll join me by dashing off a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell:

National Football League
280 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Journalists sickened by 9/11?

David Handschuh, a photographer at The New York Daily News (and three-time Pulitzer nominee — but who’s counting?), called this week. We discussed a very important issue potentially affecting thousands of journalists who spent long hours covering Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to subsequent message from David:

“New York State passed a law that extends until 8/14/08 the time for ‘Rescue and Recovery Workers’ to file for Workers Comp for injuries sustained while working at the World Trade Center.

“This is a VERY good thing that will help many people, but it unfortunately excludes journalists — reporters, photographers, producers, correspondents and others in the media who covered the attack for months afterwards.

“Along with the several press groups, I am attempting to:

  • Identify media members who are currently suffering from health issues as a result of 9/11 coverage.
  • Identify media members who covered the event and are concerned over future health issues
  • Get media members who covered the attack to fill out and submit the ‘WTC12’ form that those who covered the attack to get coverage in the event of future health issues
  • Track NY State’s Worker’s Comp Board responses, either accepting or rejecting these submissions
  • Lobby the Governor’s office and Legislature to offer statutory ammendments that would assure the inclusion of Journalists.

“I need your assistance in getting a handle on how many media members have health concerns over their 9/11 exposure. Please pass this note to Journalist friends or co-workers. Have people contact me at or by phone at (212) 210-2344.

“I am also looking for volunteers to assist with gathering legislative support in New York City. Together I believe that we can get health protection for members of our community who informed the public and recorded history on 9/11/01 and for months and months after.


‘Predator’ under fire again …

I’m not passing judgment on the merits of a $100 million lawsuit filed against NBC this week. Really, I’m not. But am I surprised that this suit has been filed? Nope. Do I think NBC needs to rethink its ‘Predator’ series? Absolutely.

The New York Post has reported that a woman has filed suit against the network after Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” exposed her brother during one of its sting operations. The man was a Texas prosecutor, who, according to NBC’s reporting, allegedly went online to solicit sex with a 13-year-old boy. He committed suicide as Dateline staff positioned cameras to capture his arrest.

This is at least the second lawsuit filed against the show. A former producer is seeking $1 million from NBC. If there’s any basis for her claims, the network truly has crossed into highly unethical territory.

I have maintained since November that this show has some serious problems. Former National Ethics Committee chairman Gary Hill, a veteran TV broadcaster, also expressed serious reservations.

What do you think?

Nate Isaacs shot with a Taser: Priceless

Now THIS is amusing: SPJ member Nate Isaacs being shot with a Taser gun.

Don’t know Nate? In this video, he’s not hard at all to spot. Look for the young, clean-shaven guy wearing glasses and shouting an expletive as he falls to his knees.

Nate, a reporter for the Tri-City Herald in Washington state, has served as the director of SPJ’s region 10. He recently resigned from the national board — and has given notice at the paper as well — because he plans to go to business school.

Journalism is losing a good egg — and an obviously profane one.

Tech: To buy or not to buy?!

OK, so an editor at The Denver Post asked me to speak to a newly assembled team of breaking-news reporters this week.

Thinking I’d be helpful, I sent them an e-mail listing the hardware and software they’d be smart to know a thing or two about. In the e-mail, I also made one statement that seriously ruffled some feathers — and I sure would like to know what you think about the issue it raised.

But first, let’s take a quick look at the list o’ tech tools I provided. Because the software I wrote about is Post-specific, I’ll spare you those gory details and simply share with you the gear I try to keep handy at all times:

  • Mobile phone Ideally a model that features a camera — and video-recording capabilities. This year, I’m pretty sure an iPhone will be on my Christmas wishlist.
  • A Flash drive You’ve seen these small, keychain-like devices that store digital information and help you move files from machine to machine quickly. Have one with you at all times.
  • Digital audio recorder I use an iPod with a mic attachment, but you could get just about any model you like.
  • Digital camera You don’t need something big and swanky to produce fabulous results. My Canon PowerShot SD600 is about the size and weight of a deck of cards. It also takes video snippets and has a mic port. I used my PowerShot to capture all the video and stills featured in the spring-conference flick I produced recently for SPJ.
  • Video camera You can get waaayyy too bogged down in the tech specifics where a videocam is concerned. Sure, they’re important, but my mantra is, “Better is the enemy of good.” If you’re holding out for perfection — especially on a small budget — you’re never gonna get a video cam.I recently purchased the Canon HV20 (three of them, actually) for the Post’s features department and have been delighted by its superior video quality and easy navigation. I have put it into plenty of use while producing a new “Webisode” featuring Post dining critic Tucker Shaw.
  • Microphones I have a lavalier for my PowerShot, a wireless mic system for the HV20, a condenser for the HV20 and a USB tabletop mic (check out the Snowball) that plugs directly into my laptop.
  • Wireless laptop This is the biggie. I own a MacBook Pro. It’s easy to use and beautifully designed. All applications that I need to build stories out in the field are easy to understand and seamlessly integrated so that I’m able to slice and dice the content I generate into all sorts of exciting formats. You want still photos? A slideshow? How about a movie? It’s all yours in no time flat with this sweet machine. Are there perfectly fine PC laptops out there? Of course!

Now for that statement that raised more than a few eyebrows: “I heartily recommend that you consider buying your own” technology, I wrote to my colleagues. “How you acquire this equipment will be up to you and (the editor for whom you’re working) — but I wholeheartedly recommend that you seriously consider making a personal investment or two. It is VERY nice to own your own stuff.”

Let’s just say there are people who think the news organization should buy everything for them. If the organization expects breaking news from the field in the form of photos, audio, video and print, it’ll make sure its reporters are adequately equipped, one colleague told me.

I certainly understand the reasoning here — but I’m inclined to own my own things. I’m just not a fan of having to share equipment. It always feels as if something is broken or reconfigured or otherwise screwed up by the person who used it just before I did. And what if the news organization refuses to provide equipment that I feel really helps the quality of my work?

What do you think?


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