Why We Still Need Professional Journalism

JUDGE BEST by Flickr user meormeor
"JUDGE BEST" by Flickr user meormeor

The meaning of “professional” has changed drastically over time. It used to solely designate someone who had completed specialized training and been accepted into an organized group of others who pursue the same calling. These days, it often just means “someone who gets paid for what they do,” or “someone who works in an office.”

But even the “old” definition actually misses the mark, because it’s focused on the individual and not on society. So even using a strict designation, we can have “profession creep” so that all manner of occupations can become professions simply by adding a tough training course and a sanctioning body. For instance, there’s actually a group of “communications professionals.” I don’t dispute their skill, but I question the label.

Because, if you look at the role professionals play in society, a different definition comes to light:

A profession is someone to whom society grants special powers in return for special service that requires special skill.

This is a public definition of the word.

For instance, we give the police the power to carry weapons, use force, and detain us in return for their vital service protecting the peace. We allow medical doctors to wield almost God-like power over our well-being, in return for their service in healing the sick. We give judges power to remove our freedoms in return for their service in deciding disputes according to the law. All these uses of “professional” are rooted in the needs and perspective of the public, as opposed to the individual.

Using this litmus test, many occupations lose their “professional” status because they either lack the special powers or the special service aspect.

I have been interested lately in this as it relates to Journalism. I have written before about the differences between Journalism and news gathering. Lately I have thought about it more, as I have been involved in developing a new “citizen journalist” project that I’ll be writing about more in upcoming article.

There are professional Journalists, by the public definition: we grant them special powers (secrecy and protection of sources) in return for their specialized skill in illuminating the truth. But in a world where Journalism is being replaced by newsgathering, the perceived need for Journalism is waning. People can get their news from nonprofessionals, and don’t focus as individuals on whether they want Journalism or not.

This seems to me to be a problem that we need to address on a public, societal level. Though individuals may not perceive a personal need for it, a free society demands that Journalism be present and be robust.

People these days pooh-pooh professional training for Journalists, because so many amateurs are getting into the act — or what looks like the act. (I am one of them.)

But there come times when we need more than news (what happened) and need Journalism (deeper truth, investigated and uncovered). If there is no profession, I fear that there won’t be this Journalism around when we need it.

Seven Things I Can Control

Tar Broom by Flickr user erix!
"Tar Broom" by Flickr user erix!

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about some things that were troubling me. I was unhappy with the behavior of others. As we discussed the situation, it became clear that the behavior may well have been driven by others’ reactions to my own behavior.

“You can’t control what they do,” said my friend, “but you can control what you do.” In retrospect, this is very straightforward advice — yet, in the moment, it’s often hard to see.

What’s even more difficult, is to know what it is I can control. My friend gave me a list that has proven to be very, very helpful. I thought you might find it useful.

These are the things that I can control:

  • Attitude: What do I bring to the situation? What are my expectations?
  • Effort: Am I just coasting along at half steam, or am I all in?
  • Tone: Do I say the correct things, yet clothe them in sarcasm or smugness?
  • Motives: Do I have hidden motives, such as vanity or pride?
  • Thoughts: Am I harboring negative thoughts about others?
  • Actions: Regardless of my intentions, are my actions helpful?
  • Reactions: How do I react to what others do? Is it helpful?

If I can keep these elements in check, I can know that if others behave in ways I don’t like, or that cause me problems, it’s not my own fault but something else. I can know that my own side of the street is clean.

Now, I just need to keep this front and center for when I really need it!

Freedom And Responsibility In Public Life

Scales of Justice by Flickr user srqpix
"Scales of Justice" by Flickr user srqpix

In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, I talk about the balance that needs to be struck between freedom and responsibility.

For people who run online communities this can be especially troubling, as the relative anonymity of the online world makes it easy to go too far and say things that infringe on the sense of safety of others. That is, we can have almost perfect freedom of speech online, but at what cost?

In online spaces, the premium is often on freedom of expression. But I would argue that at least as much attention must be paid to ensuring that people are acting with responsibility.

Otherwise, public life becomes Hobbesian and people who ought to be there are driven out.

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Performatives In Social Media

Ever since I discovered them, I’ve been fascinated by something called “performatives” in speech. These are statements that inherently change the state of affairs. The classic one is “naming,” as in “your name is. . . .” Before the statement, I did not have a name (or it was different).  After that statement, I did. It was the statement itself that gave me the name.

Another one is “I nominate you.” Before I say that, you are not nominated. After I say it, you are. My saying it makes it so.

Performatives came to my mind when I read recently of the woman who got jailed for violating a protection order — by poking someone on Facebook.

Picture poking Jeffs Video poking me by Flickr user ogimogi
"Picture poking Jeff's Video poking me" by Flickr user ogimogi

In trying to explain to the uninitiated what a Facebook “poke” is, the article says:

“Poking is a feature unique to Facebook that conveys no other message but informing a user they have been ‘poked’ by another user.”

This is a kind of performative, although trivial in its meaning.

Social media is filled with such performatives, in fact you could say that this is its currency.

Simply by virtually saying “I follow you,” this makes it so in Twitter. By saying “I accept your friendship,” it’s made manifest in Facebook. I only “like” something after I have said I “like” it.

Social media, in other words, is a semiotician’s playground. Of course this is nothing new, but think about the consequence this has on the so-called real world.

Because there is a land that so many of us occupy, in which performatives hold such sway and power, the very utterance of certain words and phrases (“poke,” “like,” “friend”) can give rise to all manner of effects. Why, I can get arrested!

This is a major shift in social relations, one which we are only beginning to grapple with. It is both exhilarating and frightening to imagine what our social norms will be in ten years, given the trajectory we are on.


In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, I talk about my friend who’s a civil engineer. The other day, he happily observed to me that none of his bridges had ever fallen down.

It caused me to rethink a few things about my own work. What if I approached my work with the intention of making sure it would still be there in 40 years?