Should journalists be licensed? The Conversation Canada commissioned two articles to argue for and against the idea. The counterpoint of this argument – putting the arguments on the other side – will be published tomorrow.
In the post-truth haze that has enveloped public discourse, a free press is more crucial than ever in educating the public and holding leaders to account. Reliable, accurate news is an essential public good, while false or misleading news can foment confusion and distrust.
In this regard, the practice of journalism has much in common with the practice of medicine. The best medical practice can enhance the public’s health, while careless treatment can lead to real harms. One of these professions is tightly regulated. The other is practised without any formal systems of oversight.
Doctors are granted a licence to practise medicine by a medical board, or a college of physicians. Licensure typically requires proof of completion of medical school, as well as passing a series of examinations, and payment of an annual fee. Many physicians are additionally registered with other professional bodies that require evidence of continuing medical education, to better ensure that practitioners stay current in their fields.
Medical colleges establish clear rules and guidelines about how, in general terms, a physician’s practice should be carried out. Clear policies govern the professional standards that must be met, as well as how investigations and disciplinary actions are to be brought forth in the event of a suspected violation.
Certain types of misconduct — be it a failure to maintain the standards of the profession, disgraceful behaviour, abuse of a position of authority, or other misdeeds — can land a physician before a disciplinary committee with the power to revoke their licence if they are indeed found guilty of malfeasance.
Board serves public and profession alike
Medical boards serve the public, providing mechanisms through which patients can lodge complaints about physicians. They also serve physicians, who use credentialing to demonstrate good standing.
Importantly, medical boards and colleges do not represent an additional layer of government bureaucracy. Rather, they are formed by groups of doctors, patients and members of the public.
The potential parallels with journalism are easy to spot. The media fulfils an essential role in public life. Anyone writing and publishing news stories is given a potentially powerful voice. While our hope is that journalists will use their voice to reliably inform the public, we must also recognize their potential to lead people astray.
Not long ago, accurate, fact-based and ground-breaking reporting was valued – think Knowlton Nash, Woodward and Bernstein or the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. Highly respected journalists collected information first-hand, bringing stories to press or to air only after the most stringent of vetting and corroboration.
The upside of the hard work that goes into producing and filing a story included nothing more than a good reputation and a modest pay cheque. Though by no means perfect, reporting was for the most part done with the best of intentions, by those most qualified to do it.
Anyone can now report on a story
Our current media ecosystem presents a far different picture. The internet has given voice to anyone wishing to report on a story, enabling shoddy research based on secondary sources (or even pure fantasy). It has become possible to publish at the push of a button, at any time of day.
The upside now includes an influx of cash from clicks and page views; being provocative may be more profitable than being correct. As a consequence, the lines between news and entertainment are now blurred. Consumers of news are adrift in a sea of stories, left to disambiguate the fake news from the real thing.
This state of affairs constitutes a threat to the public good.
One needs look no further than recent votes in the United States and the United Kingdom to see that elections have serious and far-reaching consequences. While failing to vote may be a dereliction of one’s civic duty, voting while uninformed can be downright dangerous.
This state of affairs — in which a profession has a duty to protect the public but the means to do harm — underscores the need for a journalism licensing body.
Journalistic bona fides
A self-regulating college of journalists could determine what sort of education is needed in order to become licensed. Standards of journalistic practice and norms of professional conduct could be established based on a consensus of expert opinions. Formal processes to investigate malpractice and strip wrongdoers of their credentials could be put in place.
A licence in good standing would be a visible sign of a journalist’s bona fides, akin to the post-nominal “MD” that medical school graduates use.
A college of journalists would in no way infringe upon free speech or freedom of the press, much as a medical board does not preclude patients from seeking treatment from complementary and alternative sources.
In fact, seeking health treatments or news stories outside the mainstream may in many cases be a safe and reasonable thing to do. The difference is that the consumer becomes better informed about their choices, and practitioners can’t as easily claim to provide a service they aren’t qualified to deliver.
Physicians inhabit a unique place of trust in society, conferred at least in part by the recognition that their practice is regulated, and that those operating outside of accepted bounds face consequences.
Trust in journalists is no less important, but increasingly scarce these days. While the licensing of journalists may do little to stem the tide of fake news, it might at least make it easier to call it out for what it is.