As newsrooms and their budgets shrivel and spin brigades multiply, the role journalists play in democracy has never been more important. It’s time reporters quit copping out, hiding behind faux cynicism and that tired “journalists aren’t joiners” excuse. It’s time we got organized and stood up for ourselves, writes Mary Agnes Welch.
Photo courtesy of Matt Meuse
By Mary Agnes Welch
Why are we so wussy and disorganized?
That was the question I scribbled at the top of my notebook as I brooded over what to say at a panel discussion at the CBC’s investigative journalism conference in Winnipeg last month. The panel was about how journalists can better advocate for investigative reporting, and I had a nuanced and intellectual argument prepared. But when I stood up to speak, it dissolved into a bit of an unexpected rant from a frustrated journalist and former Canadian Association of Journalists president.
It went roughly like this: We are terrible advocates for ourselves. We’ve failed so dramatically at it, and for so long, that at some point we deserve what we get. We bitch at the bar about newsroom cuts, disgusting advertorials, our latest Kafkaesque battle with federal flaks, the colleague who is way too cozy with his sources. Then we do absolutely nothing, except bitch some more.
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We are fractured. There are more than a dozen journalism-related organizations in Canada, including unions, industry associations and advocacy groups like the CAJ and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Most have shrinking, shoe-string budgets. Most journalists aren’t members. Most have limited impact.
And yet, we still do great work. The Senate scandal, the temporary foreign worker debacle, Alberta’s foster care deaths, Quebec’s construction corruption—all stories galvanized by straight-up good journalism. But we do almost nothing to highlight the decisive role reporting like that plays in the proper functioning of a democracy. We just expect and assume that Canadians understand how much we matter. They don’t. They’ve got other things to worry about.
It’s always been this way. But now, as newsrooms shrivel and spin brigades multiply, it’s getting serious. It’s time reporters quit copping out, hiding behind faux cynicism and that tired “journalists aren’t joiners” excuse. It’s time we got organized and stood up for ourselves.
That’s what I said to the audience at last month’s panel, before I copped out myself. I said I didn’t know exactly how we should get organized, short of every journalist joining the CAJ (please do, by the way).
Afterwards, I realized I did have a solution, one that’s been in the back of my mind for years, one that many journalists, for good reason, really, really hate: We must professionalize. We must form or re-appropriate some kind of national organization with real power and real money that allows us to police ourselves, to promote our work and to determine who can properly call themselves a journalist.
A range of other professions have done it, including landscape architects, graphic designers and human resources experts. In Manitoba, the land surveyors have had an official professional association with their own enabling legislation for years. They’ve just launched a big-budget television ad campaign telling people how great they are. Where is the ad campaign for journalists?
We are a profession, whether we like it or not. It’s virtually impossible to get a newsroom job without a j-degree or serious digital training, which suggests we’ve already moved far from the notion that anyone can do it, that people start as copy boys and end up covering Parliament. We have a sophisticated set of ethics. Our skills are increasingly technical. We have special status in law and we do things most people aren’t allowed to do, or won’t. The citizen journalist thing has largely faded because—and why can’t just we say this?—we are an elite bunch.
In most scenarios, professionalization means provincial or national legislation that allows for the creation of a self-regulating association that licenses qualified journalists, however defined. For many, that’s a deal-breaker right there. The idea that government would be deciding who counts as a journalist is an anathema to the notion of a free press.
Several years ago, when I was CAJ president, we had a raucous debate at the board table about this. Journalists for whom I have tremendous respect and fondness hated the idea so much they threatened to quit the CAJ if we decided to inch toward professionalization. The issue came up again a couple of years ago with the release of Quebec’s Payette report and has since fizzled.
The notion of a licensing body is a conversation-ender for many, especially veteran reporters, and, practically, it’s pie-in-the-sky, anyway. We can barely decide which hashtag to use for the next civic election, let alone launch a coordinated province-by-province push for legislated recognition.
Perhaps there is a middle ground, or a starting point, a voluntary organization vested with the ability to police, professionalize and promote—essentially, the CAJ on steroids. It could establish a clear definition of “journalist” before the courts do it, which they surely will soon. It could enforce a code of ethics, because, let’s be honest, we’re far from perfect. It could be a powerful and persuasive voice for good journalism in Canada, doing more to push for decent access to information laws, source protection and staffing levels. It could offer the kind of training no media company offers any more. It could even set up an investigative journalism fund like the ones flourishing in the United States. Most of all, it could remind Canadians how much a feisty, freewheeling press matters.
We’d never admit it because it’s Pollyanna and soft, but there exists a deep professional pride among journalists, pride in our independence, in our critical minds and, when we’re at our best, in our ability to make things a little better. As individuals, we take our responsibilities and privileges seriously, but that rarely translates into collective action. We stand on the sidelines, shrugging our shoulders at how bad things are. It’s time to grow up.
Mary Agnes Welch is a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, a former CAJ president and a 2012-13 Southam Journalism Fellow.
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