Professionalization of journalism won't help, we need to be open

The professionalization of journalism in Canada will do nothing to address the fundemental problem facing my profession – the public doesn’t trust us.

In fact, it will worsen the crisis by increasing public distrust of “journalists” and producing a stigma about journalists – that we carry the stamp of approval of the powerful.

Our old business model is bust, not because bloggers often cheap Adwords placements – it’s broke because the underlying trust that must be the foundation of convincing readers to pay for content is missing.

The Pew Research study about public trust in the United States media revealed the American public believes:

77% think that news organizations tend to favor one side, and 80% say news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations.

We do not have a similarly comprehensive survey in Canada. We do have a public opinion poll measuring trust of professions. Last year, The Globe and Mail ran the headline “[Canadians trust doctors less, journalists more: poll]("Canadians trust doctors less, journalists more: poll ")” upon its release.

Trust in doctors dropped from 85% to 63%, trust in journalists jumped from 32% to 33%. The survey’s margin of error? +/-3.1.

These two surveys reflect the crisis of English-language journalism in North America. People believe we are influenced by those in power. If professionalization results in us being given officially sanctioned special access to those in power, this perception will become reality.

The Chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists is in favour of professionalization. In a column last week, Dale Bass writes:

I’ve been in favour of professionalization for a long time, although it was a tough conversion.

Here’s why.

First, who is a journalist? Is it someone who blogs about happenings in the world? Is it someone who grabs a notebook and pen and heads off to some foreign land experiencing conflict, calling themselves a freelancer?

Is simply graduating with a journalism degree enough to be considered one or should there be something else?

As journalists, we seem to have some strange disconnect between how we view ourselves and how we want to be viewed. We want to think of ourselves as professionals, but we don’t want to behave as other professions do.

We are reluctant to establish — let alone enforce — a uniform code of ethics, for example.

One of the main reasons I’m in favour of it, though, is because I see it as a sure way we can do something we’re really lousy at — explaining to our consumers what we do, how we do it and,  most importantly, why we do it.

There’s a reason many people don’t trust my profession — we don’t tell them why they should.

We simply call people up, ask them questions and expect them to provide the answers.

We pass judgment on people without explaining why we should have that right.

We owe it to ourselves, too, so that in this world where anyone who knows how to blog can call themselves a reporter, there are some clear definitions out there to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The professionalization of journalists in Canada will do nothing to explain what journalists do unless it involves limiting what journalists can do.

That’s the great thing about journalism, it is not defined by some list of tasks. Journalism is defined by the process necessary to find and share the truth.

The closing line of the CAJ chair’s statement reveals that professionalization is not about process, it’s about separating us above bloggers. (I consider myself to be both and do not see a conflict between being a member of both groups)

The fact is anyone can produce journalism, just as anyone can produce a research paper. The difference between an academic’s journal article and a third-grader’s homework is the quality of the output. The processes are similar, the investment of time and expertise distinguishes the academic.

Journalists must show that we can produce a better article with our greater investment of time and resources that ‘some blogger in pyjamas sitting in a basement somewhere.’

Worrying about bloggers won’t do it.

The only way to address our crisis is to adopt more transparent and open practices. We don’t need to communicate what we do. We need to show what we do, we need to post our notes, share the audio of our interviews and scrums, and post the source documents we cite for our reporting.

Open Journalism is what the public demands. It’s the exact opposition of attempts to use titles to rise journalists above citizens.