Last month, Quebec's professional journalists federation voted in favour of creating a special designation for professional journos. Is it the right move? Billy Shields has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and Mexico, when both places either considered, or implemented, similar accreditation structures. Shields shares his thoughts on why a special designation could be more trouble than it's worth.

Last month, Quebec's professional journalists federation voted in favour of creating a special designation for professional journos. Is it the right move? Billy Shields has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and Mexico, when both places either considered, or implemented, similar accreditation structures. Shields shares his thoughts on why a special designation could be more trouble than it's worth.

 

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I used to work as a reporter in the Caribbean about eight years ago.  During that time, a circle of journalists in Puerto Rico were batting around the idea of professional licensing. The arguments in support of the move were similar to those being made today in Quebec: licensing, certification, designation, (or whatever other moniker you want to use) will ensure the quality of a journalist’s product.

Fortunately, the idea to license journalists in Puerto Rico remained just that: an idea. Even if it had caught on among journalists, it’s unlikely any such licensing regime would fly under the U.S. constitution on an island that is a U.S. commonwealth. The First Amendment guarantees free speech under the U.S. flag, meaning that to license a journalist to work — which would implicitly determine who cannot work in the profession — would be concomitant to limiting free speech. It would regulate a profession that was intended in the States as an unregulated enterprise all along, and would almost certainly violate the very section of the constitution that journalists also happen to rely on for their freedoms.  

In Puerto Rico,journalists were essentially contemplating whether to flout an important cornerstone of their own protection for the sake of a plastic card and an honourific title — a move that’s ironic to the point of absurdism.

Recently, a movement in Quebec has offered up a remarkably similar paradox: a study by a journalist called for the creation of a special status for professional journalists and was warmly embraced by the province’s press club.       

Former CBC journalist Dominique Payette completed an exhaustive 134-page report in December that argued for the creation of a special designation for professional journalists. The Fédération professionnelle des journalists du Québec (FPJQ) decided to put it to a vote the first week of April. More than 900 members cast their ballots. Of those, 87 per cent voted in favour of the special title and all it entails.

The study made a whopping 51 recommendations, but five assertions among them stand out:

Government agencies should fast-track designees’ access-to-information requests;

Designees would get special legal privileges concerning protection of sources;

Designees could take a year off work if they felt they were in an unethical work environment;

Designees would receive some legal protections from defamation suits if they followed certain correction practices;

Government advertising should be reserved to Quebec Press Council member organizations
   
Certainly the study had a noble aim and made several valid points. It deplored the fact that several journalists — especially those in the U.S. — have been cashiered at a time when the number of media outlets have exploded. This is a global and structural trend. Hoping that a special designation can reverse it, however, is wishful thinking.

I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have worked as a journalist in a few different countries and territories. I wrote for a newspaper in Mexico in the late 1990s, I wrote for a daily newspaper and a wire service in the Caribbean in the early 2000s, and I covered courts in Miami afterward. These are areas that encompass a wide gamut of legal and cultural traditions. And the media in some of these areas also have to grapple with issues of cultural isolation, nationwide media vs. local media, and the relationship between the media and the government.

I’ve seen the flip side of some of Payette’s recommendations. Much of what she recommends in this study was either a component of the media landscape in a place where I worked or was something the local press corps was debating. With this in mind, I’ll go through the recommendations one-by-one:

On A-to-I requests: Along with the United States, Canada is fortunate to have rules on the books designed to allow its citizenry to see the workings of its government. This is no pro forma rule – it is a crucial mechanism of a democracy that should exist undiluted.
Public records requests are made so that the public can see the workings of its government in the sunshine. The cranky guy who lives in the library has the same right to a list of defence contractors as the Ottawa beat reporter. The only thing a fast-tracked A-to-I request does is create discrimination. Some members of the public would have a higher priority than others to know how their government works. No free society should work that way.

On protecting sources: Journalists make promises to sources to keep their identities confidential so that they can benefit from the information these well-placed sources have. The deal is usually phrased like this: “I guarantee your confidentiality. I’ll go to jail to protect it.” If as a reporter you can’t keep your end of the bargain without any additional protections, you don’t deserve to work in this business anyway. No amount of card-carrying will change that.   

On taking a year-off as an ethical respite: This is another well-intentioned idea whose enforceability would be all but impractical. There are all kinds of ethical dilemmas that appear in the newsroom during a career, I just don’t see how this would solve any of them. Keeping the name of a rape victim out of a story is one thing, but what if someone objected to working on a Sunday? Where would you draw the line? And who would draw it?

On defamation: Defamation suits are the mechanism available to the public to keep reporters honest. The standard that I use when I do investigative work is one an editor handed down to me: “Do the reporting with the assumption someone will file a lawsuit against us after this runs.” Defamation lawsuits are nothing for a true pro to fear – and making it harder for journalists to remain accountable for their work would only goad more people in the profession into veering into the domain of reckless behaviour.

Any loophole designed to protect a ‘professional journalist’ from defamation claims will be traversed by the members of the profession who are too sloppy to belong in it in the first place.

On government advertising: If you let the government into the exclusive franchise of advertising in certain approved media outlets, it instantly makes those outlets dependent on government advertising where a free market once existed. That puts the government in the dangerous business of deciding what message gets out there.

This was exactly the situation in Mexico when I worked there during the last days of the PRI’s federal political machine. The government didn’t need to resort to politburo tactics if media outlets put out a critical message; it could cancel its ads. Those lucrative advertisements became the lifeblood of some publications – ones that had unfortunately been forced to develop a symbiosis with elements of the government. This undeniably dampened the coverage of a government that was a rotating dictatorship.

When Mexicans made history by turning that ruling party out of office, even good newspapers ended up in an economic bind. When political currents changed and publications such as El Excélsior of Mexico City (which was once known as Mexico’s “Le Monde”) fell on hard times, it was in no small part because the regime change choked off government advertising.

Guaranteeing government adverts to a publication will do next to nothing to foster a healthy atmosphere of free speech. If anything it will have the diametrically opposite effect — it will put media outlets at the mercy of politics.

Yet the most important point to remember here is that any journalist submitting to any process seeking to certify, designate or license instantly becomes thrall to those who decide. As soon as it becomes apparent that there will be a gatekeeper to credible information it will only be a matter of time before vested interests take control of the process. A certification regime would eventually and inevitably act as the stooge of every corrupt government, predatory corporation or criminal operator.  

Please don’t misunderstand me, the intentions of the FPJQ when it put this to a vote are ostensibly admirable. Payette’s study mainly noted that the economics of the profession were eroding the quality of the product because it made it harder for pros to make a living. The recommendations that she made were aimed at improving both the economy and quality of the profession for the men and women who work in it.

It’s important to note that Payette’s study does not in any way make a “non-titled” journalist ineligible to work; it simply seeks to gain major benefits and incentives to those in the profession who obtain the designation.        

But if the old koan about the road to hell ever applied, it would apply here. A special status will do next to nothing to help journalists make a better living. If anything, it would help media companies identify those of us who would cost them more money. And it could create an environment where certified journalists would become beholden to the organization that certifies them.     

There’s a reason why the printing press caused such a stir when it started spilling ink. There’s a reason why the Internet is so powerful. There’s a reason why Twitter is cited so often as a major factor in recent regime changes in the Middle East. These are things that dramatically changed the flow of information. More specifically, they dramatically altered who is in control of the information.

There’s no turning back the clock on that now. Rather than concentrating on making their franchise more exclusive, members of the Fourth Estate should be focusing their energies on harnessing the informative power of the new media tools at their disposal.

Journalism is a rare profession. Ideally it gives everyone a voice; it is the original equalizer of public life. To make "professional journalism" the domain of a few cardholders would destroy its most important quality — its accessibility. It would turn a democracy into an oligarchy.    

Journalists provide information. Their work demands evaluation by one party and one party only — the public. I don’t ask permission for my beliefs: I have a right to them. I don’t ask permission to express myself for the same reason. And I don’t need a card with my name on it to tell me what I already know that I am.

If any of my foregoing experiences isn’t convincing proof enough that this is a bad idea, consider that 70 years ago, a young Quebecker trucked off to Europe as a journalist working for the U.S. military. Working in a relatively new broadcast medium, this young bright star brought thoughtful dispatches from the Allied lines back to North America with a revolver strapped to his hip. He would do more daring and insightful work later on for Radio-Canada in Korea.

Though he worked in several different countries for the service of at least two different government media outlets, he never acquired a special status to be a professional journalist. He didn’t have to — the quality of his work cemented his reputation among his listeners and viewers. As he continued to work throughout Canada, he eventually left the profession to become Quebec premier.

René Lévesque the journalist never needed a special title. Neither should the rest of us. 

Billy Shields is a Montreal-based journalist with about 10 years of news experience working in places like Mexico, the Caribbean, and Miami. He was on a team of reporters at The Virgin Islands Daily News that won the 2003 Associated Press Managing Editors Award for Public Service; his courts reporting took the grand prize in the Florida Bar's media awards in 2009. He blogs about Montreal at http://www.islandparadox.blogspot.com.