At its general assembly on Nov. 28, the Fédération profesionnelle des journalistes du Québec will be debating a series of motions recommended by the organization’s executive committee. Among them is a demand for a parliamentary commission into the Journal de Montréal lockout, an update to its ethics guidelines to reflect the development of social media (a subject I’ve been invited to speak about at a panel discussion the day before), and a bill of rights for freelancers.
These things sound pretty good (though the wording of the demand for a parliamentary commission sounds like its goal is to get the government to publicly embarrass Quebecor and come down against the creation of the QMI Agency news service).
There’s also a motion to expand the definition of “Quebec”, as silly as that sounds, to include those media organizations that “étant établie au Canada, entretient avec le Québec des liens historiques et culturels“, which sounds a lot like they’ll accept francophone journalists from just about anywhere in Canada. I’m not necessarily against this, but it opens up a can of worms (will the FPJQ now have to deal with the Ontario and New Brunswick governments?) and reinforces the idea that there’s a French mediasphere and an English one, and the FPJQ is on the French side.
But the motion that really bothers me is a proposal to setup a certification system for journalists.
Our poor reputation
The genesis for this idea appears to have come out of a survey the FPJQ did of journalists, in which they expressed concern for the quality of journalism that’s being done these days, concern that the line between journalists and non-journalists is fading, and a wish that everyone who considers themselves a journalist should be subject to the same ethics codes.
The solution, the FPJQ has suggested, should be the creation of a title called “journaliste professionel” which can only be bestowed upon real journalists who make their living doing journalism. And since having the government decide who can be a journalist is an attack on basic constitutional freedom, they’d rather an independent third party do this instead. For reasons of practicality, they’ve suggested … the FPJQ.
I don’t want to sound alarmist, but
it’s my job as a blogger to exaggerate some of the implications of this are downright scary.
Around the world
In researching this idea, I tried to look for other places where such a system is in place or has been proposed. Lots of third-world countries have tried this, leading to rebukes from journalist organizations who quite rightly complain that this could easily lead to governments suppressing undesirable reporting.
Recently, a Michigan state senator suggested creating a registration system that would bestow the title upon those who had a journalism degree, a minimum amount of experience and who were employed at a recognized news outlet. The idea was quickly shot down by those who say it’s an attack on the first amendment right to freedom of speech.
It’s not just governments that have suggested this though. The president of the Society of Professional Journalists suggested such a system in 2007. Others have come forward with the idea as a way of differentiating real journalists from biased blowhards. If lawyers can require licenses, why not journalists? If meteorologists can have a voluntary certification system, why not general assignment reporters?
One country that has already setup such a system is Belgium, and the FPJQ has invited Martine Simonis of their journalists’ union to speak about her experiences there since a law recognizing “professional journalists” was created in 1963.
Like in the Michigan case above, the title requires employment at a media outlet, a certain amount of experience, an age floor (21), a requirement to abide by ethics rules and a prohibition against working in communications.
Perhaps I should wait until Simonis speaks, but I don’t know if a system in a country that has a national collective agreement for journalists would work here.
The fine line
The FPJQ motion is particularly vague on the specifics. How would this system work? Would it be based on the Belgian system? How does someone get accredited? How do they get de-accredited?
Most importantly, what advantages come with being accredited that non-professional journalists will be denied? My research into the Belgian system shows that it’s not much. Discounts on travel, more parking privileges, a photo ID card and the added access that comes with it.
Seems kind of minor for all the work involved in registering.
For clues, I went to a document prepared by the FPJQ in 2002, the last time this was brought up. There we have a bit more specifics on what an accredited journalist would get as far as perks:
- Free access to information requests. That sounds good in principle. But the current law is pretty clear on payment: a government organization can charge a reasonable fee based on the work and materials used to compile the information requested. Requiring government agencies to absorb these costs would punish them, and open the door to abuse. Quebecor, which goes crazy with requests for details of just about everything having to do with the CBC, would not only gain knowledge through this exercise but also be able to punish the corporation financially in the process. But the worst part of this is the implication that non-journalists will have to pay. There are plenty of cases where non-journalists seek access to government information for non-journalistic reasons. Now would they have to find a journalist to process their request for them?
- Free access to court records. Same problem. People might want access to criminal dockets for all sorts of reasons. For this to be mentioned is to suggest that non-journalists would not enjoy the same privilege.
- Freedom to protect sources. The courts are currently sorting through the issue of protecting anonymous sources, and may develop a test that determines whether someone can claim a journalistic privilege to avoid testifying in court. But that would apply on a case-by-case basis and would depend on the circumstances. The court is unlikely to say that all cases involving a professional journalist accredited by a non-governmental body must be immune from prosecution.
- Freedom to refuse assignments that put their lives in danger or threaten their journalistic integrity. I don’t know of any news organizations assigning people to war zones against their will. But maybe it happens. There are certainly cases where journalists are asked to do things they’re ethically uncomfortable with. But these are matters for collective agreements. (And does this imply that non-professional journalists can have their lives put in danger against their will?)
- Right to be represented by their employer if sued for something they did professionally. Most news organizations already establish that in cases like libel they will assume the defence of the accused journalist. Many even extend this to freelancers. The reason is simple: People who have been wronged by a news organization will sue the organization, not just the journalist.
In all of these cases, the question we should ask isn’t whether journalists should have these rights, but whether non-accredited journalists should be denied them.
And how do we determine who is a journalist anyway? Sure, a general assignment reporter for a major newspaper qualifies. But what about:
- A newspaper publisher? Do management get an automatic free pass even if they don’t do journalism in their daily jobs? What about clerks? Technicians? Advertising salespeople? HR? Where do you draw the line within a news organization? What if one person does more than one job?
- Columnists? Is Richard Martineau a journalist? Pierre Foglia? What about Joseph Facal or L. Ian MacDonald or Liza Frulla? Or Steven Guilbeault? Does it depend on whether the columnist’s primary employment is at the news outlet?
- Locked-out and laid-off workers? If a professional journalist’s status is all about his job, what about those that don’t have one? Would “professional journalist” include those people working at Rue Frontenac? Is the certification automatically revoked when someone gets fired?
- Freelancers? The Belgian system accepts them, and an association of Quebec freelance journalists has come out in favour of this idea. But many freelancers don’t do freelance journalism as their primary job. Many do corporate copywriting, or they have day jobs and write about their fields as experts. What criteria would be used to judge whether they qualify as “professional”?
- Marginal publications? No one doubts that La Presse is worthy of accreditation, but what about publications that are mostly advertising? What about those neighbourhood Transcon weeklies that don’t have any full-time journalists and consist mainly of republished borough press releases and advertorials?
- Student and volunteer publications? It stands to reason that in order to qualify as a “professional” journalist, you have to be paid to do it. So by definition, news outlets based on the work of volunteers wouldn’t qualify. So goodbye student papers, college radio stations, community TV. You’re not journalists, and you never will be.
- Comedians? Is Jean-René Dufort a journalist? Rick Mercer? Jon Stewart? Do they get accepted even though they’re hardly bound by ethical guidelines, or do they get rejected even though they are a source of news for so many people?
- Non-fiction authors? Lots of biographers and writers of non-fiction perform journalistic acts, even though they may be self-employed or at least not employed by a news outlet.
- Bloggers? I’d probably get into this exclusive group because I’m employed as a copy editor at The Gazette. But if I wasn’t, would I still be eligible? It’s not like I make any direct money off this blog. And if a blogger like me can get in, what about the Clique du Plateau? What about Midnight Poutine? Or Four Habs Fans? Or Spacing Montreal? Or Montreal City Weblog? None of them have professionals working for them, but some produce serious journalism. If you establish that some of us are journalists and some aren’t, where do you draw the line?
(I ask these questions rhetorically, but I’m actually interested in what people think. Feel free to give a yes or no to all the above in the comments.)
These issues aren’t minor points of clarification, they go to the heart of the issue. Journalism comes in far more forms than it used to, and not everyone fits the cliché. Define too narrowly, and you exclude a lot of people who are contributing to journalism. Define too broadly, and anyone can call herself a journalist and the accreditation holds no meaning.
The Quebecor problem
Even if you could solve all the above, there’s the giant question of enforcement. What happens when a journalist fails to live up to the ethical code? They could get stripped of their title, but still keep their job. Are they not “professional journalists” anymore?
The Quebec Press Council already tries to separate serious journalism from the rest. Membership in the council is voluntary, and it has no power to enforce its decisions, but mainstream news organizations become members and pay fees because it gives an added layer of credibility to their work. And it saves them from having to hire an ombudsman.
But the council has been losing members recently. Quebec broadcasters like RDS argued that because they already have to deal with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council they shouldn’t have to belong to a separate oversight body. And Quebecor decided its publications shouldn’t have to answer to a third party which it felt was biased against them. They’ve even threatened to sue if the council continues to make judgments against Quebecor’s publications.
If Quebecor can’t agree to be part of the press council, does anyone seriously believe it would accept this “professional journalist” certification proposed (and administered) by an organization it has all but dismissed as being controlled by unionists?
And if Quebecor rejects this certification, it becomes practically useless as a way of separating serious journalists from non-serious ones.
Another body that has to set rules defining journalists is the Quebec press gallery, which covers the National Assembly. And again, it has run into problems with Quebecor, denying membership to two journalists from the Journal de Québec because they would replace locked-out journalists from the Journal de Montréal. Would a journalist accreditation body act similarly to deny this title to those who act against union interests? The FPJQ hasn’t supported the press gallery’s move to exclude these journalists, but it hasn’t exactly taken Quebecor’s side in debates about journalism either.
Formalizing the clique
These issues, the definitional problems, the slippery slope of rights to freedom of expression, the need for an oversight body that wasn’t needed before, and the probable non-participation of some news organizations, might be worth tackling if there were serious benefits to journalist certification.
But even the arguments made in favour of this move have problems:
- Legal acknowledgment of journalist status will help combat media concentration, ensure better working conditions for journalists and protect their freedom from outside pressure. I find zero evidence that this would happen. Certifying journalists won’t magically cause Quebecor to dismantle its QMI Agency news service. Working conditions are set by collective agreement, and unless this proposal also involves a national union for Quebec journalists, it won’t have any impact on that. And if journalists aren’t already protected by their employer from outside pressure, certification isn’t going to change that.
- This move will establish a common code of ethics that applies to all journalists. The FPJQ already has a code of ethics. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council already applies an ethical code on private broadcasters. And the Quebec Press Council has its own set of standards and practices. All of these are similar and based on a similar set of fundamental journalistic values. I’m certainly not hearing massive protests over the fact that different but similar codes of ethics are being applied to different journalists.
- This will set clear boundaries between real journalists and … uhh … not. There’s no question a boundary will be set. Either someone is accredited or they’re not. But is that a good thing? There are plenty of people who practice journalism part-time, as a side job, or who host shows on LCN. I don’t know who I’d classify as a journalist, and I’m one of them. Or maybe I’m not. The point is that this boundary will be artificial, rather than simply codifying a barrier that already exists.
- This will improve the reputation of journalists among the public that has lost its trust in them. People who have lost trust in journalism aren’t going to change their minds because those journalists have decided to certify themselves. The latest issue of the FPJQ’s own magazine has a blogger on its cover that complains about the “clique du Plateau”. The response to this isn’t to have members of that same clique decide who’s worthy to join their ranks.
Accreditation if necessary
There are situations where some person or body has to make the distinction between a journalist and a non-journalist. These are situations of scarcity and aren’t codified in law. Government press galleries decide on their own membership (which has caused problems in the past), but anyone is welcome to report on the government’s activities. Entertainment event producers give free passes and previews to journalists to raise the profiles of their shows, but have to be discriminating so they don’t give free passes to everyone who just doesn’t want to pay to see a show. Professional sports leagues also give special privileges to journalists that require them to make a judgment call.
But in most matters, anyone can be a journalist. Anyone can find out information, talk to people about it and publish what they find. And a lot of people do. Massive amounts of journalism are produced every day without anyone needing to be certified to do it.
Trust is earned
Journalists are kidding themselves if they think having a card that says “PRESS” on it is going to make them more trusted among the public. Accreditation no more helps journalists than it does police officers, lawyers or doctors. Trust is earned, and can’t be simply handed out in card form. Some journalists have trust bestowed upon them because they’re hired by reputable organizations, but that reputation has been built up over time. Consumers judge whether to trust a journalist or news outlet based on their records, whether they’ve been fair and honest in the past, and how much original reporting they produce. One that’s deemed untrustworthy based on its record isn’t going to be able to save itself by waving that “professional journalist” card in anyone’s face.
Journalism has worked out just fine for centuries without needing an accreditation system. It has problems, mostly related to the amount of trust that society puts in the profession. This poorly-thought-out idea doesn’t solve those problems, and I would argue only makes the situation worse.
Unless the FPJQ can make a really convincing case next weekend, I see no value in this proposition.
UPDATE: A study group looking into the state of journalism in Quebec has produced some (really long) research papers into this issue, looking particularly at the historical context here and elsewhere. You can read Richard E. Langelier’s report from March about the debate here (PDF) and his look at the situation in France an Belgium here (PDF).
UPDATE (Dec. 6): Rue Frontenac’s Jean-François Codère has some thoughts on how public financing for professional journalists could be justified, and later takes on right-wing pundit Eric Duhaime’s criticisms of his thoughts.