Comments Of The Day: “Open Forum, Or ‘I Guess I Picked The Wrong Time To Start Driving All Over Virginia!’” (“Profession Of Journalism” Thread)

Today we have a rare tag team Comment of the Day: JutGory raised the provocative ethics issue of what constitutes a profession and whether journalism qualifies, and Rich in Ct, who has been on fire of late, responded with a sharp analysis.

This was all especially propitious, since the I had a dispute with my legal ethics teaching partner during our (very well-received) “Crossfire”-style seminars last week on just this question. He maintains that it is a a myth to pretend that a profession like the the law is called such for any reason other than the fact lawyers engage in it for compensation. Well, he’s wrong. Professions are not merely occupations, but pursuits one undertakes for the good of society. That is why the hallmark of professionals is that they are trusted and trustworthy, and why their compensation is of secondary priority. The desire for profit undermines professionalism by creating conflicts of interest.

My answer to the question posed by JutGory is that journalism must be a profession, because the public must be able to trust journalists for journalism to benefit society. However presents day journalists are driven by motivations far removed from the public good: their personal political agendas, the pursuit of fame and power, and the love of money. It can be a professiona, and should be a profession, but as currently practiced, it isn’t a profession.

Here are JutGory’s and Rich in Ct.’s  Comments of the Day on the “profession of journalism” thread in the post, “Open Forum, Or ‘I Guess I Picked The Wrong Time To Start Driving All Over Virginia!’”

First, here’s JutGory…

Can journalism be a profession?

My profession, law, has a set of ethical rules. It is a club, and it is self-regulating. Is it self-regulating? Yeah. My state gets about 1000 complaints per year, and about 10 percent each year get disciplined. Every year, you get a handful of disbarments. Not overbearing but I know a lawyer who got a 60-day suspension for a “non-legal” infraction and basically threw in the towel. I can empathize. It is like being accused of a crime; it can be hard to deal with. And, you are held to standards.

The press? You can’t be de-pressed? Dis-presses? Unimpressed?

In a free society, with a free press, can you have a profession where there is no way to regulate its participants.

A shorter way to ask the question: can the press be a true profession if Dan Rather can’t be barred from the profession?

Similar question for teaching. The wrinkle with teaching: can a profession governed by labor unions really enforce ethical standards and discipline?

Rich in Ct’s response…

Engineering can be an example. While licensing is handled by states, there are professional societies that encourage high standards and exercise a degree of self-regulation. The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, has an ethics committee that can investigate complaints that run afoul of the engineering code of ethics, but not necessarily state sanctionable regulations. It can hear cases involving professional conduction, unfair marketing, calamity of another engineer, etc.

The catch, of course, is that the strictest possible remedy is expulsion from the society.

Many states have similar professional organizations for other fields. In law, the Connecticut Bar Association is such a private organization (admission and suspension from the bar is done by the a state agency with an obscure name). Medicine has “Board Certification”. Accounting and actuarial sciences have many levels of private certification. Other than perhaps the medical boards few are household names.

Journalism as a profession suffers from the latter. There are ethics organizations, and nobody knows of them. The closest to a household name is the dubious Pulitizer Prize organization. Journalism is somewhat unique among professions in that it is constitutionally protected. Only clergy enjoy similar privilege. As an aside,maybe lobbyists – I find proposals for lifetime bans of former congressman from lobbying to be constitutionally dubious, given the right to freely assemble AND the independent right to petition for redress of grievances.

Journalism cannot be regulated by the state, nor should it, as a core purpose is to independently monitor the state. Yet there is also no reliable media watchdog to independently monitor the journalist. It is precisely in these circumstances, where outside regulation is impossible, that each member of the profession must hold himself accountable.

Professionals deal in matters too complicated for the average person to comprehend. It is a position of trust. The public blindly trusts the bridge will not collapse below them; most lack the skills to see the earliest signs of structural distress. The public all but blindly trust TaxACT and H&R Block to do their taxes correctly, as the Byzantine tax code cause all ye to abandon hope. Criminal defendants all but blindly trust their lawyers to get the best possible resolution to their cases, because 1000 years of case law is not something the average Joe has studied.

Journalism, by all appearances, is such a specialized field. Most people will not have the resources to independently investigate each incident site, each legislative meeting, each potential witness to a fraud, etc. Journalists perform a service of trust for the public.

It is not the formal oversight that makes a profession, but the nature of duties fulfilled. Journalism is failing those duties, and not holding itself accountable. Individuals are rationalizing each other’s missteps and misconduct, rather than holding each other to higher standards. The mechanisms exist for the professional journalism to do their duties.

The professionals are failing their duties. But the professional duties do exist.

2 thoughts on “Comments Of The Day: “Open Forum, Or ‘I Guess I Picked The Wrong Time To Start Driving All Over Virginia!’” (“Profession Of Journalism” Thread)

  1. The Society of Professional Journalism has an interesting Code of Ethics that is taught specifically , studied or at least referenced in each “J-School”. Every NY Times, Washington Post, TV reporter, anchor and editor is familiar with the Code. In real life, “exceptions” apply, because, well there are Comey like circumstances that compel ignoring the Code, ethics, accuracy and fairness because the subject of the unfair, dishonest partisan hit piece is not sufficiently woke/progressive.

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