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.

3 thoughts on “Why We Still Need Professional Journalism”

  1. Brad:

    This topic is complex. Thanks for beginning to anaylze how titles, actions and intentions are so blended right now. The “media stage” is packed with actors reading different scripts. It would probably take a full book to really define how complicated what is happening RIGHT NOW really is.

    Why? Because even the terms we use as central to the definition of “professional” – like “truth” are really up for grabs. More than ever, the notion that even a “professional” anything might unilaterally hit pay dirt and locate truth in some essential form…is really a modern idea – (not in the sense of contemporary). AS a society, we do well and will grow when we openly acknowledge that ideological agenda DOES exist in every form of analysis (conscious or unconscious). One cannot fall into relativism…but as a society I think we are learning that our combined truths, somehow must come together…yet we are not “there” yet.

    I think that what we seek and practice in trying to find “truth” is really the intention and the process we want working in favor of the public good. That is: a person who seeks new information from sources, who analyzes that information and does his or her best to offer up what he or she thinks is the closest thing to the truth. That process is 180 degrees from what still flies as journalism: pointing a camera at an event, putting a microphone in someone’s face…streaming it “live” and “hyped”.

    To me, I think of analysis that openly makes an effort to be fair and intelligent – like “60 Minutes” at its best, for example…shows that that kind of intention. You said, “A free society demands that Journalism be present and be robust.” And, taking that a step further, without access to news that undergoes journalistic mediation we could all just be shown images of wars, riots, etc…and have no idea what those images mean, where/if such images are happening in real time or ??
    On the other hand we do also need just the tools of the media so we can witness an event for ourselves…like a speech, or CSPAN.

    Another issue is editorializing…where does that come in? Opinions…analysis that openly acknowledges an ideological agenda?

    I must end here because I could continue. I think what is happening right now is that all these forms show up in media right now…and the forms show up regardless of the title the actor happens to possess.
    Some bloggers really do journalism, some “journalists” are actually newsgatherers, some OP-Ed pieces are actually journalism in that they attempt fairness (perhaps even by acknowledging that an ideological agenda DOES exist in every form of analysis – conscious or unconscious).

    I pointed out how much I appreciated your definition of WTC – Clear…etc. Perhaps a hallmark of that Community and the Conversation/Content it generates can be that we attempt to keep a finger on the pulse of these changing roles and definitions…openly and with true curiosity…getting back to the notion of service and the Process of generating analysis to protect our rights/freedom.

    I don’t know if that makes it professional…but I know that it is important — and certainly the Founders would agree!

  2. I read your thread of postings on professional journalism versus mere newsgathering. I think it is a topic well worth discussing, and I’d like to share a few of my own thoughts.

    News as a commodity: I came across a definition of the term ‘commodity’ just that other day that made sense to me for the first time (I am not, nor ever have been, an economist). A commodity is something for which price is the **only** competitive factor. For example, there is nothing you can do to wheat to make it better wheat, quality being basically the same everywhere, so all you can do is make it cheaper. With the internet, news has finally become a commodity because you can get news for free, all day every day. This is where we split news from journalism, because journalism requires some skills–objectivity, fact checking, finding the lead, etc.–that add value, that take the news commodity and give it context and relevance. Like taking the wheat and making the most delicious bread. People will pay for that skill.

    I have a clipping from, I think, The Atlantic, from an article on just this topic. I don’t remember the author, but the salient part is this: “The real value now lies in non-commodifiable virtues like deep reporting, strong narrative, distinct point of view, and sharp analysis….”

    My former employer, BNA, is in the business of specialty journalism, so called because it does not aspire to feed news to everybody, it just delivers reporting and information to highly specialized markets, mostly in law and highly regulated industries. The company is facing the same pressures as newspapers are, just not to the same extreme degree (BNA was not, until recently, dependant on ad revenue, for instance). During the last decade of soul-searching, the editors I worked with came to realize that one of the values we were supplying to our subscribers was allowing them to save time. The workday has not changed, but the information needs have increased with the internet. Most highly paid professionals (I use that term conversationally) do not have the time to sort through commodity information. They want to know what is important, why it is important, and what relevance it has to them, in a short amount of time (half hour or so). They pay for that too.

    What kind of business model can we glean from all this? As you point out in one of your earlier posts, journalism organizations could compete to make other industries more competitive, at one step removed from the public marketplace. That sounds a bit like a consultant, doesn’t it? So where does that leave the journalism as a public good? We’re back to that.

    Finally, let me point out something from an article in today’s Washington Post: “Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: ‘The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them…. This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it is expensive.'”

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