Members of the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec are being asked to vote today until Thursday on a proposition to establish the "title" of "professional journalist", in an effort to improve journalists' working conditions and give them more power to maintain their integrity.
The goal is a laudable one. But here's why they should vote "no":
When the FPJQ first decided to consider this idea in the fall, I wrote a blog post panning the idea. I picked apart the argument for creating a professional journalist status, as well as the supposed perks having such a status would give people. I also criticized the examples given of France and Belgium, where such statuses exist but whose media environments aren't nearly the same as ours.
My primary concern wasn't so much that journalists were getting more rights, but that these rights would be given only to those people deemed worthy of them.
Journalism has existed as we know it for decades without needing any type of formal accreditation system. So, I asked, why should we establish one now? What problem is it solving?
Still, because a big study on the issue hadn't been released, I held off on a final judgment. Maybe it would convince me that I'd been wrong, that the perceived disadvantages of such an accreditation system would be vastly outweighed by the positives.
The famous report (PDF) from Dominique Payette came out in January.
I remain unconvinced.
Is this necessary?
It's very clear from the material being shared with members that the FPJQ wants people to vote yes. There's no effort at balance in the arguments here. No space given to the possible downsides of separating "professional" journalists from non-professional ones.
The Payette report into the state of journalism is also heavily biased in favour of this system.
Payette's argument is that convergence (read: Quebecor) and the ease with which people can share information have had a detrimental effect on journalism, and establishing a professional title (though not necessarily an order like we have for doctors or lawyers) would somehow help fix this problem.
Payette makes her case based on a statement early on in the report:
Depuis quelques années, on observe au Québec une réduction du nombre de producteurs d’informations originales d’intérêt public, et ce, malgré la multiplication des plateformes de diffusion.
No source is provided for this statement, nor is it made clear who is doing the observing here. Yes, many newsrooms are smaller than they once were. But we also have many more newsrooms than we used to have, and lots of people are using different forms of media to get their message across. Is there really less original news of a public interest being produced? Has someone studied this to see if it's actually the case?
Payette's report notes that "l’information d’intérêt public est fragilisée par le développement de médias spécialisés ou de « niche »", as if the creation of more specialized news sources is somehow a bad thing. I would argue the opposite, that instead of general-interest journalists learning the basics of an issue and giving a simplistic (and potentially wrong) explanation of it to the public, we now have experts in various fields willing to give in-depth analysis of issues.
Whether those experts are "journalists" is a good question.
The Internet and changing consumption habits have radically changed journalism. In some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse. That's change, and we have to change with it.
But despite all the fretting about how journalists are being laid off and media empires are no longer what they once were, there's little justification in the material I've read for the establishment of a massive bureaucracy that won't actually regulate much.
Recommendations hard to swallow
Where Payette's report gets really scary is in some of its recommendations. As I said in the previous post, some of the ideas for benefits of the professional journalist status sound good but should be applied to everyone.
- The protection of sources, for example, should apply to anyone whose protection of a source is for a journalistic reason, not just someone who has a card saying they're a journalist.
- Preferential treatment for access to information requests would make a lot of journalists happy, but would hurt those who don't have journalist status and want to get information. In many cases, non-journalists making access to information requests want to get data on themselves or a family member, and their needs are much more important to them than a journalist's curiosity. And, of course, there are cases that gum up the system that come from journalists themselves. Quebecor's massive access dump on the CBC, for instance, would now be given preferential treatment and make the problem even worse. (Thankfully, a suggestion that journalists' A-to-I requests all be free of charge has been dropped.)
Then there are the recommendations that are just crazy:
- Allowing journalists to leave work and take full paid leave of up to a year because they don't believe their working conditions allow them to be fully ethical is just asking for years of litigation.
- Restricting government advertising to Quebec Press Council members would create all sorts of problems. Could governments no longer advertise on billboards or on Métrovision or on specialty channels because they aren't run by people who employ journalists?
- Changing the law to prevent anyone who has been libelled from seeking any damages from media who follow standard policies about corrections gives those media less of an incentive to stop libelling people. I'm not suggesting that people should be able to sue for millions because of what's written in the paper about them, but people who are wronged by the media (for example, being accused of a crime when they haven't even been charged) deserve compensation.
- Setting up a 1-800 number for the Quebec Press Council so people can get ethics advice sounds like a really stupid idea and a giant waste of money.
- Requiring all professional journalists to pass a French language test and get regular French language training not only ignores the fact that that not all journalism in Quebec is done in French, but it also sounds like its goal is more about politics than it is about journalism. (The Suburban clearly wasn't happy with this suggestion.) The report makes a case that language skills are vital to proper communication (though I don't think too many people are failing to be informed because of journalists' quality of French), but there are no similar recommendations for other skills journalists should have, like math, basic science or history.
The FPJQ's vote isn't necessarily to accept all the recommendations of the report, but this entire project is based on that report, and the association hasn't rejected any of the ideas above.
The Payette report isn't all bad. There are some decent recommendations here:
- Allow freelance journalists to negotiate on a level playing field and ensure their contracts have a minimum standard
- Allow journalists to represent themselves at access to information hearings, as non-journalists are allowed to do
- Increase support for small regional independent media (through government handouts or other measures)
- Having the government follow an open data policy and put raw data online as much as possible
- Forcing municipalities to publish publicly-accessible documents online and provide adequate public notice of council meetings and their agendas
But none of these in any way require the establishment of a title of professional journalist.
Better or worse for new media
Some bloggers and independent journalists are praising the idea, thinking they will improve their working conditions. Nathalie Collard of La Presse went down to South by Southwest and concluded her vision of the media universe contrasted radically with the visions of young media entrepreneurs.
Criticism from journalists has unfortunately been very little. Most are quiet about it, perhaps unsure of their opinions. Some support the idea (like Le Soleil's Pierre-Paul Noreau). Some hate it (like The Suburban and The Gazette - which makes it seem as if there's a language divide here, but Voir's Jérôme Lussier is critical too). Some don't think this has been properly thought out. Le Devoir's Josée Boileau asks the simple question: then what?
That's a big question. The reports and recommendations kind of skip over the most important question of why this is even necessary, preferring to spend most of their time discussing how it would work (and even then, many of the not-unimportant details are left until later).
Some make a false comparison between independent journalists and artists. But this proposal wouldn't establish a union for journalists, and artists don't have a title or the same kind of ethics code that would be so vital for journalists.
Conflict of interest
The FPJQ is obviously in favour of this project, because it would give a legal status to the federation. It says people wouldn't have to be members of the FPJQ to get official journalist status, but only members could elect FPJQ executives who decide who sits on the council that decides who can become a journalist.
The Quebec Press Council, a separate body whose membership is voluntary and whose powers are practically non-existent, also embraces Payette's report. That might have something to do with the six-figure government handouts she wants the council to receive.
Judging from the fact that a preliminary proposal was approved unanimously at the FPJQ's annual meeting, it's likely this vote will also pass with a huge margin. Only FPJQ members are allowed to vote (and I'm not one of them), even though the decision - if it moves the government to action - would affect every journalist working in Quebec.
Then again, as far as this blog is concerned, whether I'm really a journalist could be up for debate soon.
UPDATE (April 6): Nathalie Collard has a letter from Le Devoir's Louis-Gilles Francoeur saying he's voting against this idea, not because he opposes having the title of "professional journalist", but because he opposes having the FPJQ (as opposed to the press council) be the one to administer it.
UPDATE (Nov. 16): Disagreements over who should administer this scheme has resulted in the FPJQ being less than enthusiastic, and could mean abandoning the project.