Journalists: certify or not?

In the interests of irritating those on all sides of an issue, I’ve posted a guest commentary on TechFlash calling for the optional, voluntary professional certification of journalists.

Why would I do something others in my former profession might think, well, is stupid?

After all, I spent more than a decade as a full-time news broadcaster (radio and TV), and then — after I moved to marketing consulting — still worked on the side as a columnist for Eastsideweek/Seattle Weekly (for four years) and KCPQ-TV Seattle as a commentator (for another four years). I should be one of the last people to call for journalist “certification.”

Years ago, when I read Algis Budrys’ 1977 novel Michaelmas, I wasn’t just struck by its prescient vision of a distributed, networked computer intelligence. I was struck by its vision of the profession of its protagonist: as a highly respected, freelance journalist, handling his own research, video and reporting — and selling his reporting services to the highest bidder.

More than 30 years later, Budrys (who died last year) may have hit upon the journalistic future I think we’re about to embark upon: that of free-agent professionals who are medium agnostic and can produce text, audio and video for just about any kind of media outlet, including one they individually control.  Think of it as blended reporting.

A baby step in that direction is independent certification of journalists as professionals (not government licensing, and not required — it’s all optional). As I noted in the lively comments to the TechFlash piece, certification would provide another tool to help news consumers comparison shop among unfamiliar news sources. And perhaps provide some guidance for the wannabe journalist (the ones without formal training or experience) that they’re on the right track.

It certainly won’t guarantee good reporting. If what someone produces is inaccurate or crap, the audience won’t come back. Certification is only a initial filter that certain standards and expected practices are likely to be adhered to.

Why hasn’t this been done before? I think the reason practicing journalists are queasy about certification is three-fold:

1) First Amendment fears. Some would see certification, even voluntary, as a first step toward government licensing (which I oppose). This is why, I think, RTNDA and SPJ/SDX — even with their standards and codes of ethics — have never taken the step beyond membership to certification, unlike associations in other many other professions.

2) Notoriously independent nature. Journalists are an ornery bunch (me included).

3) Assumed screening by the employing organization. Journalist wannabes didn’t used to have a news media voice or be able to reach an audience unless they were hired by a journalistic organization that effectively vouched for them.

It’s the last that is disappearing with the democratization of news distribution, and what leads me to think it’s time to reconsider optional, voluntary certification.

Even though fellow professional and thoughtful-person-in-general Linda Thomas (@TheNewsChick on Twitter) indicated in the TechFlash comments she doesn’t like the idea, she did earlier suggest it may lead to a future in which late night TV is filled with flashing 1-800-BE-A-JOURNO ads.

I think all sides can agree that, truly, would be a news dystopia.