Who is fundamentally a journalist? Is journalism a profession? How would a form of regulatory organization influence the practice of journalism? Jean-Sébastien Marier highlights the key ideas debated during a recent round table on the professionalization of journalism at the University of Ottawa.

Who is fundamentally a journalist? Is journalism a profession? How would a form of regulatory organization influence the practice of journalism? Jean-Sébastien Marier highlights the key ideas debated during a recent round table on the professionalization of journalism at the University of Ottawa.

A brief introduction: The licensing debate in Quebec and beyond

Nearly a year ago, Quebec journalist and scholar Dominique Payette provoked lengthy discussions on the professionalization of journalism with the release of her report Information in Quebec: A Public Interest.

While few would dispute Payette’s conclusion that journalism is at a crossroads, her key remedy to the challenges faced by modern journalists received mixed reviews.

Among the 51 recommendations listed in the 132-page long Payette Report is a call to the provincial government to regulate journalism as it does doctors and lawyers.

The FPJQ (Federation of Professional Journalists in Quebec) initially welcomed the proposal, but recently changed its mind after further consideration. For its part, the Canadian Association of Journalists has been critical of the idea since its inception.

 “The Quebec government’s proposal to divide journalists into classes, backed by legislation, and giving one group rights and privileges denied to the other is a fundamental interference by government in true freedom of the press,” the CAJ wrote in a statement posted on its website.

While the government of Quebec appears inclined to halt the creation of a professional status for now, questions pertaining to the professionalization of journalism remain.

The issue was debated recently at a round table at the University of Ottawa on Jan. 11.

Marc-François Bernier: The professionalization of journalism is not a new idea

Marc-François Bernier, research chair in communication of the Canadian Francophonie at the University of Ottawa, noted that the debate surrounding the professionalization of journalism is not new.

When newspaper editors and publishers first sought public recognition in the early days of the industry, they did so mainly to gain better salaries and receive discounts on services such as public transportation.

“There was also the will … to segregate between good journalists, called professional journalists when the term first appeared … and charlatans,” Bernier said.

He added that for the last hundred years, freedom of the press was monopolized by companies. Nowadays, new technologies have enabled citizens to report the news, such as in the 18th century, when some neighbourhoods had their own small printing presses.

“We have to think of journalism in the plural,” Bernier said. “We have to accept that there is a diversity… of journalisms in our society.”

Klaus Pohle: Journalism is not a profession because it cannot be precisely defined

Media law specialist Klaus Pohle, an associate professor at Carleton University, agreed that “citizen journalists” and other such communicators “add to the diversity of voices in a democracy.”

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He added that while some of what citizen journalists publish is “rubbish,” mainstream media can also produce “rubbish” journalism. Pohle warned against attempts to professionalize journalism through the licensing of its practitioners, as the Payette Report recommended.

“It was short-sighted and unworkable for many reasons,” he said.

For one, it is unclear who would be responsible for issuing the licenses and who would qualify for one, since there is no agreed upon definition of a journalist. Bloggers, citizen journalists, etc. all engage in activities that could qualify as journalism.

“In our system, in our regime, anybody can be a journalist and anybody should be able to be a journalist,” Pohle said. “Licensing can only work when you can precisely define the group that you are calling a profession, like a doctor or a lawyer… And that isn’t the case with journalist.”

Pohle argued that journalism is therefore not a profession. He added that licensing would privilege one class of citizens over another – those with the privileges and access granted by a journalism license and those without.

“We should be talking about professional conduct, yes, but professionalization… wouldn’t work and shouldn’t work.”

Tonda MacCharles: Journalists have diversified yet unequal skills

The Toronto Star’sTonda MacCharles agreed with Pohle that no universal definition of a journalist exists.

“[Journalism] does require skills and not all of us have all of those skills,” said the veteran reporter. “One thing I’ve learned is that we share… some common characteristics. But not all of us are great data crunchers. Not all of us are even great storytellers. Most of us are pretty good writers.”

MacCharles recognized that some minimal knowledge and competences should be expected from journalists. However, she cautioned that government licensing or regulation of the trade is a bad idea.

“It’s no state business to tell us who is or isn’t a journalist,” she said.

The parliamentary reporter, who never finished her journalism degree, added that “were there a licensing scheme that required, as a condition of certification, a certain level of education at a recognized journalism school” she wouldn’t be a journalist.

The Jan. 11 round table also included presentations by Daniel Bouchard, anchor for Radio-Canada’s Ottawa-Gatineau weekend television news, and Anaïs Elboujdaïni, editor in chief of  the University of Ottawa French-language student paper La Rotonde.

 

CORRECTION: This story originally attributed the Payette report to Lise Payette in error. The report was actually written by Dominique Payette, Lise's daughter. We have updated the story to reflect this correction. We apologise for the mistake and for any confusion it may have caused. 

 

Jean-Sébastien Marier (jeansebastienmarier.ca) is a recent graduate from Carleton University’s Master of Journalism program and currently works as a casual reporter for Radio-Canada in Sudbury and Ottawa, Ontario.