No, licensing journalists isn’t the answer

Is the media industry in turmoil? Clearly it is, with publishers fighting declines in circulation and advertising revenue, combined with competition from digital-native entities such as blog networks and the “democracy of distribution” that comes from social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook. Journalism itself is even said to be in jeopardy, or at least the journalism we are used to. So what’s to be done? Some are recommending journalists be licensed by some kind of official body, so we can get “real” journalism from professionals — but these kinds of solutions would create even worse problems than the ones they are trying to solve.

In a recent blog post about the TechCrunch affair, in which he describes the back-and-forth between founder Mike Arrington and AOL (s aol) executives Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington over the fate of the blog network, Australian writer Aaron Holesgrove says we are “being cheated out of objective journalism.” Sites like TechCrunch, he argues, don’t really provide journalism at all, but just a series of opinionated (but informed) blog posts about the news. Says Holesgrove:

TechCrunch has never been a source of true journalism in the first place. It is a blog with opinionated and biased content featuring pieces about technology from an informed point of view. While their pieces are news in itself, they are not journalism.

Are bloggers journalists?

And what is journalism? Apparently, Holesgrove defines journalism as being solely the pursuit of and presentation of objective facts: something he doesn’t seem to think most bloggers are capable of. At one point, he describes All Things Digital writer Kara Swisher and TechCrunch writer Paul Carr as “journalists acting like bloggers,” but then adds later that he doesn’t think Carr is a journalist at all because he isn’t objective. After some more back-and-forth about TechCrunch, the author then comes to the conclusion that we have an “objective journalism problem.”

Much of this seems like confusion over what bloggers do and what journalists do, a debate that has been going on more or less since the blog as we know it was first invented. Are there journalists who write “objective” facts about events? Yes. Are there bloggers who do the same? Clearly there are. Are there journalists who write opinions about events or news? Yes — and there are plenty of bloggers who do the same. What distinguishes these two groups? Not much, except perhaps the publishing platform they use, or the name on the masthead of the entity they work for.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one trying to figure out what exactly the term “journalism” refers to, or should refer to: Dave Winer, who pioneered both blogging and programming tools like RSS and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s school of journalism, came up with his own definition after a recent debate with me (and others such as author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis), and it too describes what most people would call “reporting” — something that’s arguably just a subset of what journalism refers to.

Chris Anderson, a media researcher and associate professor at the City University of New York, has also written about what journalism means in a digital era where publishing is as simple as the click of a mouse button. Does it just mean publishing information of some kind, or is it more than that? Winer’s definition, for example, doesn’t really include curation such as that practiced by NPR journalist Andy Carvin — a crucial part of what journalism has become. Carvin has talked about how even non-journalists can engage in “random acts of journalism” when the need arises.

Journalism should be “treated like a utility”

So what is Holesgrove’s solution to this alleged “objective journalism problem?” He says journalism should be treated like a utility, and some kind of government or industry body should license journalists to practice — in the same way that hydro workers and others who work for various utilities are regulated.

[T]he industry needs a firm line drawn between what is journalism and what is not and a little bit of intervention by a higher power could solve the whole issue in one simple stroke: It’s time to start thinking about journalism as a utility … utilities are identified as being essential to our daily operation of life and practicing professionals need to be licensed in those fields in order to protect the integrity of the utility.

Holesgrove isn’t the only one with this kind of idea: The culture minister in the Canadian province of Quebec recently discussed creating a new law that would legislate who could be a “professional journalist” as opposed to what the minister called “amateur bloggers.” While the criteria for admission to the professional category weren’t clearly described, the government said it wanted to identify those journalists who were dedicated to “serving the public interest,” and anyone with the professional rank would enjoy certain privileges such as “better access to government sources.”

This is the kind of slippery slope Holesgrove’s argument would take us down: a slope that leads to the government deciding who is a journalist and who isn’t, and therefore who deserves to be given certain information and who doesn’t. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? I certainly don’t. For better or worse, we now live in a world in which — as online-media pioneer Dan Gillmor said recently — you are your own gatekeeper, and you now get to decide whom you trust for information.

Is the media industry in turmoil? Sure it is. And everywhere you look there are “amateur bloggers” causing trouble by disobeying the supposed laws of journalism — whether by quoting anonymous sources or engaging in conflicts of interest, or a hundred other things that “real” journalists supposedly never do. But licensing some small group of journalists and excluding others would not resolve any of those issues (although it might reduce the numbers of people engaging in them). All it would do is restrict the amount of information available, and that’s a much bigger problem.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Wesley Fryer and Yan Arief Purwanto and Petteri Sulonen