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No, licensing journalists isn’t the answer

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Is the media industry in turmoil? Clearly it is, with publishers fighting declines in circulation and advertising revenue, combined with competition from digital-native entities such as blog networks and the “democracy of distribution” that comes from social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook. Journalism itself is even said to be in jeopardy, or at least the journalism we are used to. So what’s to be done? Some are recommending journalists be licensed by some kind of official body, so we can get “real” journalism from professionals — but these kinds of solutions would create even worse problems than the ones they are trying to solve.

In a recent blog post about the TechCrunch affair, in which he describes the back-and-forth between founder Mike Arrington and AOL (s aol) executives Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington over the fate of the blog network, Australian writer Aaron Holesgrove says we are “being cheated out of objective journalism.” Sites like TechCrunch, he argues, don’t really provide journalism at all, but just a series of opinionated (but informed) blog posts about the news. Says Holesgrove:

TechCrunch has never been a source of true journalism in the first place. It is a blog with opinionated and biased content featuring pieces about technology from an informed point of view. While their pieces are news in itself, they are not journalism.

Are bloggers journalists?

And what is journalism? Apparently, Holesgrove defines journalism as being solely the pursuit of and presentation of objective facts: something he doesn’t seem to think most bloggers are capable of. At one point, he describes All Things Digital writer Kara Swisher and TechCrunch writer Paul Carr as “journalists acting like bloggers,” but then adds later that he doesn’t think Carr is a journalist at all because he isn’t objective. After some more back-and-forth about TechCrunch, the author then comes to the conclusion that we have an “objective journalism problem.”

Much of this seems like confusion over what bloggers do and what journalists do, a debate that has been going on more or less since the blog as we know it was first invented. Are there journalists who write “objective” facts about events? Yes. Are there bloggers who do the same? Clearly there are. Are there journalists who write opinions about events or news? Yes — and there are plenty of bloggers who do the same. What distinguishes these two groups? Not much, except perhaps the publishing platform they use, or the name on the masthead of the entity they work for.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one trying to figure out what exactly the term “journalism” refers to, or should refer to: Dave Winer, who pioneered both blogging and programming tools like RSS and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s school of journalism, came up with his own definition after a recent debate with me (and others such as author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis), and it too describes what most people would call “reporting” — something that’s arguably just a subset of what journalism refers to.

Chris Anderson, a media researcher and associate professor at the City University of New York, has also written about what journalism means in a digital era where publishing is as simple as the click of a mouse button. Does it just mean publishing information of some kind, or is it more than that? Winer’s definition, for example, doesn’t really include curation such as that practiced by NPR journalist Andy Carvin — a crucial part of what journalism has become. Carvin has talked about how even non-journalists can engage in “random acts of journalism” when the need arises.

Journalism should be “treated like a utility”

So what is Holesgrove’s solution to this alleged “objective journalism problem?” He says journalism should be treated like a utility, and some kind of government or industry body should license journalists to practice — in the same way that hydro workers and others who work for various utilities are regulated.

[T]he industry needs a firm line drawn between what is journalism and what is not and a little bit of intervention by a higher power could solve the whole issue in one simple stroke: It’s time to start thinking about journalism as a utility … utilities are identified as being essential to our daily operation of life and practicing professionals need to be licensed in those fields in order to protect the integrity of the utility.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one with this kind of idea: The culture minister in the Canadian province of Quebec recently discussed creating a new law that would legislate who could be a “professional journalist” as opposed to what the minister called “amateur bloggers.” While the criteria for admission to the professional category weren’t clearly described, the government said it wanted to identify those journalists who were dedicated to “serving the public interest,” and anyone with the professional rank would enjoy certain privileges such as “better access to government sources.”

This is the kind of slippery slope Holesgrove’s argument would take us down: a slope that leads to the government deciding who is a journalist and who isn’t, and therefore who deserves to be given certain information and who doesn’t. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? I certainly don’t. For better or worse, we now live in a world in which — as online-media pioneer Dan Gillmor said recently — you are your own gatekeeper, and you now get to decide whom you trust for information.

Is the media industry in turmoil? Sure it is. And everywhere you look there are “amateur bloggers” causing trouble by disobeying the supposed laws of journalism — whether by quoting anonymous sources or engaging in conflicts of interest, or a hundred other things that “real” journalists supposedly never do. But licensing some small group of journalists and excluding others would not resolve any of those issues (although it might reduce the numbers of people engaging in them). All it would do is restrict the amount of information available, and that’s a much bigger problem.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Wesley Fryer and Yan Arief Purwanto and Petteri Sulonen

38 Responses to “No, licensing journalists isn’t the answer”

  1. When I was a graduate student in the 1970s at the Medill School of Journalism, one of my “professors” advocated that journalists should have to be licensed, in order that we be considered true professionals.

    I thought it was a stupid idea back then, and it’s an even more stupid idea today.

    It’s like when I started pitching myself as a journalist after I got my second journalism degree. The news director said, “Oh, you have TWO journalism degrees? What’s the matter, you didn’t get it right the first time?”

    Being “licensed” would no doubt be just as impressive!

  2. When I was a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism in the 1970s, one of my “professors” strongly advocated that journalists should have to be licensed, in order to give us credibility as “professionals.”

    It was a stupid idea then (as most of the ideas coming from journalism school teachers are), and it’s an even more stupid idea now!

  3. Frederick Nevin

    A license to practice journalism should have been put in place years ago. As it now stands, anyone can claim to be a journalist. This is and should be an insult to anyone who has spent the time and money to study journalism.

  4. Arthur Ratnik

    True journalism needs research and feet on the ground gathering information. That is expensive and time consuming. Most blogs and media outlets find it is far more profitable to simply comment on the news rather than find it and report it.

  5. leoncito1

    I fully agree as I never thought that there is such a thing as basis for a Journalist degree or school. It is an avocation to report and then it is the issue of whether is it tendencious or not or to what degree… The respect of the journalist depends on it so we know as soon as his/her name comes up whether what we are going to hear is reporting or propaganda or the mix… The judgmente is personal and cannot be subject to ‘licensing’ rules and procedures.

  6. Tell it like it is

    Holesgrove is right that it’s time to start thinking about journalism as a utility … “utilities are identified as being essential to our daily operation of life and practicing professionals need to be licensed in those fields in order to protect the integrity of the utility.” And heres why.

    I have no problem understanding the importance of commenting and blogging as a method to distribute information, its real and its happening, but what is left out of most commentary on this subject, is the issue of bullying and disinformation in commenting, the issue of trolling.

    In the world of citizen journalism, on lightly moderated forums which abound, the biggest method of persuasion, is force. The biggest bully “wins”. The absolutely countless victims of online bullying are hidden and the biggest loser, is the truth.

    This is what media like TechCrunch has covered up, this is what free speech proponents refuse to face, this is what has made mince-meat of ethics in online media.

  7. Tell it like it is

    Holesgrove is right that it’s time to start thinking about journalism as a utility: “utilities are identified as being essential to our daily operation of life and practicing professionals need to be licensed in those fields in order to protect the integrity of the utility.” And heres why.

    I have no problem understanding the importance of commenting and blogging as a method to distribute information, its real and its happening, but what is left out of most commentary on this subject, is the issue of bullying and disinformation in commenting, the issue of trolling.

    In the world of citizen journalism, on lightly moderated forums which abound, the biggest method of persuasion, is force. The biggest bully “wins”. The absolutely countless victims of online bullying are hidden and the biggest loser, is the truth.

    This is what media like TechCrunch has covered up, this is what free speech proponents refuse to face, this is what has made mince-meat of ethics in online media.

    • Aaron Holesgrove

      Thanks for your comment on my article. This is the sort of thing that I was trying to convey in the first place.

      What I would add to that is that it is OK for TechCrunch to cross the line and provide edgy content, just so long as we have a method of showing the reader what the line is in the first place. Journalists wouldn’t see Arrington as a threat if they could be identified as a true journalism sources over top of his content because the reader would value the journalistic content better and could identify it. Arrington’s content would simply be for entertainment value.

  8. If the newspaper industry wants to save itself, it will have to face the problem of content aggregation and misappropriated content. Newspapers need to protect every bit of their editorial content and not worry about page views and site usage. In most cases a newspaper acquires less that 1% to 3% of its total revenue from its webpage.

    FIRSTLY:Newspapers should use their websites as a marketing tool sold to its local advertising base: groceries, automobile dealerships, real estate agencies, and general retail not unlike or models,and use only story headlines, teaser paragraphs and well executed news, feature and sports multimedia projects as the site’s sole editorial content they could increase both circulation and revenue for the total product.

    SECONDLY:Newspapers should not thin down their print edition content as they see their circulation and revenue decline, but rather increase the reporting and news gathering capabilities within their newsrooms.

    I’m tired of hearing from former newspaper readers say,”The paper doesn’t print anything I want to read.”

    Publishers, have you asked your readers what they want in their newspaper?

    I mean your local readers; the bread and butter of your market, not some survey that looks at national trends. Every market is different with different needs.

    The newspaper industry can be fixed. People need good journalism in this country and there is no other group of organizations that’s willing to be our local, state and national governmental watchdog.

  9. Chris Brooks, APR

    Actually, credentialing IS the answer. As a public relations professional, in a profession often maligned, I am accredited – APR. The Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, should offer coursework, a code of ethics and an accreditation process so that journalists of whatever stripe they decide, bloggers and otherwise, can be trained and juried as credible sources of information. It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  10. Government regulation would just politicize journalism even further. Some of the stuff I’ve seen on Fox News, for a particularly blatant example, couldn’t withstand any rigorous definition of journalism. Yet, if the U.S. started regulating journalists, how could they leave Fox out?

  11. roblevine1

    >>>Some are recommending journalists be licensed by some kind of official body . . .

    This is the worst kind of traditional journalism – the invented trend. Who are these mysterious “some?” All I see here is an Australian writer and a provincial Canadian minister (who I’m guessing doesn’t have the authority to enact a proposal like this anyway). Not much of a movement. And all of these (valid) points about journalism and blogging have been made before, and more eloquently.

    This is journalism – at its worst.

  12. Tish Grier

    Really interesting to read a post that discusses the whole journalist vs. blogger debate again….I’ve been in lots of these arguments over my 6 year blogging/journalism career (as you may know, Mathew…)

    And I agree with everyone here: it’s not more credentials that are needed. In fact, within the news industry, there is a whole lot of self-policing of who’s considered a journalist, who’s considered (what I’d call) a “blogger-plus” and who’s just a plain old blogger who couldn’t get an interview with a political figure if he/she tried, and is pure punditry….

    I started out as a pure blogger–no background in journalism except a course in high school. But over the years I worked really damned hard to get some cred as a journalist. That cred came from getting paid for what I wrote about the industry for the Poynter Institute. I was able to write for Poynter, as well as a few other academic pubs, because I’d somehow distinguished myself as a blogger (go figure.) Since most of my work has been online rather than print, I prefer to call myself an online journalist, and actually do hold membership in the Online News Assoc. I might even be able to write for other online publications, and get paid, if I wanted to do that.

    However, among journalists, because I don’t have a journalism degree, I’m not a journalist. Yes, we can debate this one too, but among those solidly in the profession, those who have the degree (bachelors or masters) are far more credible and “ethical” than those who don’t have the degree. Even among bloggers, those that have the degree, even if they’ve never written for anyone else, are considered somehow better than those who are non-degreed.

    As if a degree can confer the ability to tell a story or a high personal ethical standard….

    A blogger, if one is a good blogger, carries about the same cachet as a writer: a producer of content. That content can be for different purposes, but whether or not that content creator (blogger or writer) is a journalist, or perceived as a journalist, is a whole different story.

    So, whether or not the public decides to believe a blogger or not–sometimes the public believes the account a blogger sets forth, usually on an event, but that may be the end of it. The blogger has to do a heck of a lot to get accepted not just by other bloggers (which is often a feat of popularity more than writing chops) but by journalists. It’s not an easy road. To get that respect, one has to work very hard, very long hours, with crappy pay, and still might not get the respect among degreed journalists simply because the paper isn’t there.

    Or maybe, in some cases, because I’ve got better sources and tell better stories. (that, I know, is a subjective judgement ;) )

    Right now, though the kinds of bloggers that newspapers and journalists should be worried about are small business bloggers who are trying to make themselves relevant in their communities. Some do present a credible threat to local newspapers. Yet credentialling won’t solve this either. It’s the reputation of the writer, and how the community feels, that will deem whether or not what is reported is right–not necessarily “truthful”–but right.

  13. This is a contentious issue and one that is guaranteed to be debated for quite some time.
    I would, however, like to inject a further line of debate. What role does the reader/audience have in all of this?
    Surely as a consumer of “news” or “opinion” or just plain made up stories, the audience has an obligation to make its own informed choices on the reliability of the information. After all the audience chose to read/view the information.
    Let’s face it, we all know that you can’t trust everything you find on line, or everything written in print for that matter. This is not a new phenomena.
    What is new, in my opinion, is that journalistic and social channels have to a large degree merged, so there is no longer a clear divide between a researched, unbiased (theoretically) source of information, and information that may be correct, but has likely been handed down through several people and subject to Chinese whispers.
    So rather than chose to get their journalistic and social information from distinct sources, people are now blending the two. It is therefore their responsibility to be critical and question the validity of the information, rather than accept it without thought.

  14. Robert Dolezal

    The issue is not defining in exclusionist terms who is a journalist, a facts reporter, a news analyst, a talking head reader, or an editorial opinionist, it’s the inability of the reader to decipher the credentials and competency of the writer, whether it’s a veteran of 30 years at the Times or a 12-year-old blogger in his pajamas. In a world where anyone can comment, the Internet and increasingly the professional media continue to disguise and obfuscate any clues a reader might have to the bias and history of the authors. Licensing journalists is clearly not the answer–for reasons discussed both in the article and in these comments–but content validation and author authority disclosure remains a very hazy but desirable objective worthy of scrutiny and evolution.

  15. John Hamer

    Licensing journalists is a terrible idea. Self-regulation by journalists’ organizations doesn’t work very well either. News councils can help, but journalists mistrust them (wrongly). Here’s an idea that actually can help: The TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable & Open. See for details. It’s a voluntary pledge and self-affixed seal that anyone practicing any kind of journalism can take and use. Just be Transparent about who you are, Accountable if you make mistakes, and Open to other viewpoints. If you fail to live up to your public promise, your readers, viewers and listeners will call you out. It’s a way of “crowdsourcing” media ethics. What’s wrong with that? See website for a directory of all those who have taken the pledge worldwide so far. Suggestions welcome. It’s no panacea, but what is? Just TAO it!

  16. Quentin Dewolf

    any kind of licensing would constitute a breach of free speech. the professional environment should control itself as it used to in the past. opinion and fact should have a strong seperation but we “customers” and they “journalist/bloggers” need to establish aceptable guidlines.
    really this is a consolidation moment between reporters and writers as the market shifts. the media outlets need develop better business models in the digital age because we “readers” want content, especialy well written, so there is income to be had. the existing media needs to stop bemoaning the situation and change.
    My poorly written opinion. Q

  17. Benjamin Marrow

    It is a quandary. The distinction between journalist and non journalist has been a free choice for information consumers to make. Editors and media industry peers also served as gatekeepers. However, many breakthroughs in journalism were made by people who helped redefine the game. Bottom line: the metrics will tell what the new “real” journalism is.

    • Tony Russo

      It’s good to see you’ve used the e-word. The editorial step is the main difference for me, someone who says, “Yes, this is worth publishing.” Since print lacks space and (many) blog readers lack attention span the editorial process is a key factor in counting something as “real” journalism.

  18. Aaron Holesgrove

    Thanks for taking the time to read my article Matt.

    I have to say that the biggest point that you missed is that I didn’t suggest government intervention at all. My exact words were “intervention by a higher power” and I went on to discuss the idea of a not-for-profit organisation established by journalists, for journalists.

    I was being vague but that’s mainly because the idea is not a complete one – just a conversation starter. The concept though was that journalists would regulate themselves. I don’t even think government enforcement over objective reporting would be legal under the First Ammendment and wouldn’t suggest it due to that.

    The whole problem with all the whinging about Mike Arrington’s disclosure issues is that the journalists are holding him to their own personal and ethical standards. That’s stupid – journalism doesn’t have a set standard so no one can be held to one.

    …unless there was a set standard. Clearly, things such as saying “I think” can’t/shouldn’t be policed, but disclosure issues should when it pertains to delivering the news about companies you’re investing in, for example.

    If this kind of general system existed, where journalists all conformed to a written honour code, then the Mike Arrington situation wouldn’t be a situation – even Arianna Huffington wouldn’t flinch. Everyone would know that Arrington wasn’t a journalist in the first place and therefore doesn’t supply journalism or break journalistic integrity – he’d just be a rogue writer making his own rules and he’d be left alone. The fact that Huffington is holding him to a journalistic standard is ridiculous. The idea is to set these sorts of boundaries so that bloggers and journalists know where they stand.

  19. In reality, it would be a professional body that would determine this, as with other professions. But, of course, it won’t happen. When the news collapses, however, is when we will see the real difference between bloggers and journalists – for all the talk of bloggers being journalists, I see very few of them wearing out shoe leather to get a story. The vast majority of it is commenting on the stories that real journalists have produced.

  20. Mathew, Holesgrove’s idea also makes it difficult for a journalist to present stories contrary to popular, or majority opinion. If this licensing body uses the number of complaints as an indicator, then a contrary story might trigger floods of complaints.

    Then who decides who sits on the licensing board? And their process?

    Finally, who is the licensing board going to look to for input on whether a piece is objective or not? Other journalists. Perhaps bloggers too. Well, we have that already. I’d rather have that review of objectivity happen out in the open, than in some licensing body’s hearing.

  21. Jebb Dykstra

    This was one old fashioned viewpoint about journalism. Journalism has always been perspective based. Always will. GigaOm, ATD, Engadget, TC and even Quora (with a decentralized approach) — all are niche based bloggers (and experts) creating information flow, education and entertainment. I love this evolution. To this end, we could even say “journalism is dead,” as Holesgrove defines it.

  22. Guillaume

    Interesting piece for sure. I’d like to clarify something about the proposed Quebec legislation, a fact that’s often overlooked in opinion pieces.

    The proposed legislation actually suggests that the FPJQ (“Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec”, i.e. the journalists’ professional association) handles the process of deciding who is a “true journalist”.

    Corporatism is the issue here, not government intervention.

    (Full disclosure: I make a living as a journalist in Quebec. And a member of the FPJQ.)

    • yes, jim, i do believe there is such a thing as objective journalism — as it’s something i’ve been practicing for 27 years. do i always get it perfectly objective? no, but i damn sure try — and own up to it when i don’t, just as the vast majority of my colleagues have over these nearly three decades — and that’s what separates “real” journalists from the play-one-on-tv types

      • Agreed, and I’ve been around about the same period. As a community newspaper editor, I’ve had reporters give me stories that are so blatantly slanted it would make on blush. I’m not afraid to research information and re-write paragraphs to make it objective — then I add a credit line since I did work and to save the reporter’s ass when a subject asks him why it’s not slanted in his/her favor.

      • Don’t know if this was posted my first time.
        I’ve been around newspapers about as long as bd; as a community newspaper editor, I’ve had reporters give been stories that are so blatantly slanted it would make one blush. I have no problem doing some research for info, re-writing paragraphs to make it as close to objective as possible, and putting a credit line in since I did work and to save the reporter’s when the subject asks why it was not slanted in his/her favor.

  23. Also, bloggers tend to put their ego into their writing (ie, “as I reported last month…”) whereas in a newspaper you would at best see “as we reported last month”.

    Blogging is all about ego and making name for oneself.

    Trained journalists must undergo some sort of training for removing the “I” from their writing. That stuff was put into the mainstream by bloggers.

    • A blog is not the same as a newspaper. In all aspects of social media, including blogs, it’s about the dialogue and interaction. Instead of being “told”, readers are participating in the conversation, bloggers are often serving as the conduit or starting the conversation. Readers of blogs generally can relate to the bloggers they follow and feel they have some sort of relationship or sense of community with the blogger and other readers. The nature of a blog lends itself to a first person or personal voice. Columnists in traditional media also often speak in the first person.

  24. The difference is that real journalists label their opinion pieces as such. Bloggers do not, hence their opinion pieces run as fact.

    For example, this piece would not appear as a news item on the NY Times, it would appear under Op-Ed.

  25. Sam Ragnarsson

    Totally agree that we should not have the government decide who is, or can be, a journalist. But the issue is still something that we need a fix for!

    Recently I was writing an article for a magazine about iPhone Market Trends in China, and did extensive research on the Internet. That demonstrated well to me how difficult it has become to find well researched and useful material. Most did not cite their source, a lot was just rumors, some stated incorrect numbers and figures and dates were missing on many sites. … I could write a whole article about this… and maybe I should, but my point is: We do need some sort of separation between people that professionally research and report news, and people that as a hobby writers a quick opinion post or rehash some news.

    It could be a simple as giving professional well-established-online-journalists, such as yourself, a different name. Blogger is simply not clear enough, as any kid with a computer can be a blogger. Maybe Ournalist, or Irnalist (Like Internet+Journalist). hhmm