Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Quebec government’s proposals to support the health of the news media in the province.
We specifically wish to comment, first and foremost, on the proposal to create, through legislation, a system that would confer the title “professional” on some journalists.
Government, no matter how noble its intentions, cannot help journalism under this proposal without subverting it.
Freedom of the press. Those words mean that when a person decides to work as a journalist, whether for pay or for free, whether for a big news organization or on their own, and regardless of the technological platform they may choose to use in telling their stories, they should have the right in our democracy to work freely, unimpeded by government, except in matters such as libel that traditionally have been set down as restrictions in criminal law.
The report from Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre maintains that the job of journalist would remain equally open to all. But, under the report’s proposal, some who practice the craft would be more equal than others.
By its very nature, the Quebec government’s proposal to divide journalists into several classes, backed by legislation and giving one group rights and privileges denied the other, is a fundamental interference by government in true freedom of the press.
It matters not that the government proposes to have an organization of Quebec journalists run the system, deciding who is and who is not a professional journalist. Nor that there would be an appeal mechanism for journalists who were disciplined or otherwise barred from using the designation “professional.” The legislative backing for the division would come from government. Its hand in the matter cannot be hidden or removed.
Members of the public may, in fact, be more inclined to question how independent a journalist is when their “professional” title was bestowed, in effect, thanks to government edict.
We believe this proposal is a mistake and should be withdrawn.
The government’s proposal suggests the title of professional journalist would help a confused public understand whom they can trust, who is credible and who is not. How does the government know that the public is confused?
Indeed, a new study by professor Alfred Hermida from the University of British Columbia entitled “Your Friend as Editor,” released in early September at a conference in Cardiff, England, found that Canadians continue to choose mainstream trusted online news sources to get their information, but also like to reach out to varied and broader non-traditional sources such as blogs and social media where they can access a wider range of opinions and topics which they may not have heard of before.
With respect, this argument, that a confused public needs government’s help, does a great disservice to the public’s ability to make these kinds of judgments without need for any government intervention.
Journalists rely on their credibility with their audience, with the public. Ultimately, that credibility does not reside in a journalist’s title or for whom they work. Credibility, whom readers and viewers will trust, comes from the content of their work. Was the reporting fair and comprehensive? Did the journalist behave ethically in getting or telling the story? Did they get it right?
Whether a journalist is credentialed as a “professional” will ultimately matter little to the audience. What has always mattered, in terms of credibility, is a journalist’s own actions. If a blogger consistently reports things that are important, accurate and interesting, they will get an audience. If a “professional” journalist is known for getting things wrong, for missing the story, for being uninteresting, for acting unprofessionally, their audience will likely dwindle, title or not.
Lawyers have licensing bodies, as do other professional designations such as accountants and physicians. Yet there are highly unprofessional lawyers and accountants, as there are trustworthy ones. A title does not protect the public from unethical or unscrupulous behaviour.
This week, the Canadian Association of Journalists released its revised Code of Ethics and guidelines for best practices in the 21st century. The document was written by some of the brightest academics and experts in the field, and the CAJ president, Hugo Rodrigues, has said he hopes the standards are adopted by and posted in every newsroom in the country, big and small, and in every workspace where journalists do their jobs, even their home offices.
If the Quebec government pursues its proposal, the Canadian Association of Journalists wishes to add several points, which the St. Pierre report may not have considered:
The costs involved for those who may want to obtain and maintain such a title should be clearly spelled out. And if not a cost in money, then in time. Independent journalists, and newly graduated journalism students operating with few resources, may not see the benefit in bothering to apply for the designation.
There are also issues of domicile and access. How would a journalist who is normally based outside of Canada, let’s say from an influential news organization such as BBC or CNN or the New York Times, be able to get access to Quebec government sources and spokespersons on the ground, if they were not accredited as a professional journalist in Quebec? Would there be short term or temporary visa-type accreditations issued for these journalists?
Or would a New York Times reporter have a harder time reporting on a Quebec dossier than, say, a reporter for a small weekly paper in the Gaspe, because the local reporter was designated a “professional” journalist according to provincial rules?
There is also the issue of language testing. Wouldn’t this prevent some Quebec-based journalists who work for ethnic media outlets, and whose French-language skills may be lacking, from doing their jobs easily and free from extra barriers? If they speak Urdu or Pashto or Arabic, and their readers are primarily allophones, would they not qualify as professional journalists under the proposed rules? Is a journalist who worked for 15 years in Pakistan and immigrated to Quebec any less professional simply because of language issues?
And what about Franco-Manitoban journalists, for instance, based in Winnipeg? Would they have to take language tests to be able to come and work in Quebec, even temporarily on an assignment?
It seems to us such restrictions on who can use the title “professional” journalist move Quebec backwards, rather then forwards.
The observed problems with business models and lack of variety of news sources, problems that motivated the Quebec government to study this issue, do exist. Some have blamed this situation on concentration of ownership issues, pointing to large media outlets having undue influence on what is reported about the lives and culture of the people of Quebec.
But, for the reasons expressed above, regulating who can be considered a “professional” journalist is not the solution to those problems.
As a journalism association, our mandate is to promote quality journalism, provide opportunities for skills training, encourage high ethical standards and, always, fight for the public’s right to know.
Journalism, as it always has, is evolving along with today’s technology. In-depth investigative work continues to be done, often online, in new forms, by new journalists. When audiences don’t get what they want from one place, in today’s fractured media universe, they will likely find content more to their liking somewhere else.
Yes, questions about how to ensure quality, in-depth news content will remain. We know those questions are out there.
As we’ve done for more than three decades, we will continue to discuss this important issue, and many others affecting journalists, with both our members and the public.
Submitted by Hugo Rodrigues, president, Canadian Association of Journalists (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)