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.”


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