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Why licensing journalists won’t end the scourge of ‘fake news’

(Shutterstock)

Why licensing journalists won’t end the scourge of ‘fake news’

(Shutterstock)

Should journalists be licensed? The Conversation Canada commissioned two articles to argue for and against the idea. Read the counterpoint of this argument to get the full picture.

A good place to start when considering a proposed solution is to ask what problem that solution is aiming to fix.

That’s a good way to approach suggestions that journalists should be licensed as a means to address concerns about “fake news” in an era in which journalists are often no longer trusted by the public.

But are those real problems?

“Fake news” — to the extent that the concept means anything — has been with us forever, on display at supermarket checkout counters every day. What’s new is not “fake news,” but the ability to distribute it quickly, easily and widely online through social media.

Licensing journalists can’t prevent that.

In fact, “fake news” as a concept now seems to mean factual information that those in positions of authority would rather not see published or broadcast — all the more reason to ensure it is distributed as widely as possible.

Canadians don’t trust news on social media

Interestingly, public opinion surveys over the past year conducted by the Public Policy Forum in conjunction with the Canadian Journalism Foundation as part of the PPF’s Shattered Mirror report, and by the Reuters Institute at Oxford, both suggest the mainstream media in Canada enjoy a considerable degree of trust. That’s quite different from the situation in the United States.

What isn’t trusted by Canadians, those same surveys show, is the accuracy of anything distributed via social media.

On one level, that leads to an intriguing question. Shouldn’t we be spending less time worrying about the spread of “fake news” and more time (assuming you can define “fake news”) trying to figure out just how many people believe any of it. The evidence so far suggests few do.

With that as a preamble, there are more questions to ask about licensing journalists.

Start with how to determine who’s a journalist at a time when anyone can distribute text, audio or video widely online. Traditional media are no longer information gatekeepers. A smart phone is all you need to become a “journalist” and record, edit and distribute any chosen mixture of video, audio, photos, data and/or text. Look at the daily online flood of material about traffic accidents, fires, demonstrations, bad behaviour in parking lots or on public transit, encounters with police and almost anything else.

What about bloggers?

Senate Bill S-231, now under consideration by the House of Commons to give journalists the ability to protect the confidentiality of their sources, defines a journalist as “a person whose main occupation is to contribute directly, either regularly or occasionally, for consideration, to the collection, writing or production of information for dissemination by the media, or anyone who assists such a person.”

That’s as good a definition as any but excludes anyone who starts a blog, tweets or distributes information other than through “the media” as it was once defined. Such individuals can produce and distribute whatever comes into their minds in whatever format they want, while facing the legal consequences if it’s libellous or violates Criminal Code provisions regarding hate speech. Others can pick it up and circulate it through social media. Licensing journalists won’t stop that.

It’s also difficult to compare journalism to self-regulating professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects. Those professions require lengthy training, specific detailed knowledge and a demonstration that you can apply all that successfully to be given a license.

A smart phone is all that’s needed

Who would determine what knowledge and skills someone should learn and be able to demonstrate to get a journalism licence?

You don’t need any technical skills — comparable in detail to the other professions — to write, shoot video, record audio, put it all together online and distribute it. You can do it, although perhaps badly, with almost no instruction. It’s no more complex than figuring out how to use your smartphone and laptop.

Nonetheless, there’s no question that journalism schools teach would-be reporters much more than that — everything from defining a story to pitching it to editors, interviewing people, digging out information that authorities would prefer remain hidden, structuring and presenting stories to audiences in different formats, not to mention the hands-on experience with the technical elements (shooting, editing, data visualization, content management systems, etc.) of online journalism. That gives journalism graduates the significant advantage of skills training when seeking employment — something someone with just a smartphone doesn’t have.

Licences also mean there are certain rules you must obey or risk sanction. What are those rules for journalism? As one example, journalism schools tell students they should have at least two sources for every story. If that was applied in practice, every news organization in Canada would likely be sanctioned every day.

Who would be the enforcer?

Who would establish the rules? Provincial press councils tried to do that informally but they dealt only with print, were underfunded, membership was voluntary and their only sanction was publicizing that the council had rapped a newspaper’s knuckles. They have since disappeared, replaced by a National NewsMedia Council that is trying to develop a consensus around defining good journalism while also mediating public complaints about media coverage.

Finally and more important, who enforces the rules and imposes penalties if a licensed journalist breaks them? Certainly not a government agency subject to political direction against news stories that those in power might not appreciate. Remember Justin Trudeau’s ill-considered and short-lived refusal to answer questions from Sun Media while leader of the opposition or Stephen Harper’s decade-long battle with the media while prime minister?

“Fake news,” yellow journalism, tabloid exposés, bad reporting and sensationalism won’t end with the licensing of journalists. Much better to focus on educating audiences about the elements of good journalism and the cost of producing it, what to look for when they see, listen to or read a news story and how to question and hold to account news organizations and journalists about their reporting. That’s something both the educational system at all levels and the media itself can do.