The Sustainability of Professionalism in Print Journalism in the 21st Century Essay

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The Sustainability of Professionalism in Print Journalism in the 21st Century

Introduction

Professionalism in print journalism is being redefined by the tremendous connectivity and widespread use of the Internet in the 21st Century. This state of being is unique to the journalism industry in that is considered to be recidivism from the professional to the amateur. The case of UK print journalism is considered to describe how this has come to be.

Professionalism in general is defined as the organization of an industry or profession into a cohesive group with established standards of practice, a code of conduct or ethics and a well-defined structure recognized by the general population and regulated by the government in which members practice.  Professional journalists in particular are required to have qualified from a recognized institution for journalists, licensed by the professional regulation commission and accredited by a recognized association of journalists.

However, professionalism in journalism as defined in sociological debate fails to take into account the history that led to the development of the professions. Professions in the UK have developed in an upward fashion, a series of actions that occur without pre-emption and securing professional status as a result. The organization and administration of UK professional services is peculiar to that country, in contrast with the downward orientation of the German professions. (Neal and Morgan, 2000)

In this essay, a brief history of British print journalism will be described and recent developments will be taken into account to illustrate how technological innovations have affected journalism and the concept of professionalism. For the purpose of this paper, the term journalism refers specifically to print journalism and journalist or journalists refer to person or group of people in print journalism.

History of British journalism

In the UK, journalism had developed in an upward orientation. The original spread of news was affected by ordinary citizens in the pursuit of their regular occupations, perhaps as merchants or sales clerks. Some news found itself in print in the weekly news books that served as newspapers during this time but circulation was limited. The onset of the industrial revolution in the mid 19th Century resulted in printing and distribution capabilities that made journalism big business. The rotary printing press, cheap paper and mass literacy led to the rise of mass media. (Wallace, 2006)

But as early as the 17th Century, newspapers were already being published in Europe, but the right to print in England was strictly regulated. It took a foreigner from Amsterdam, Joris Veseler to produce the first English-language newspaper in 1620. By 1665, the news book style papers ceased printing with the publication of the Oxford Gazette as the first official journal of record and the Crown newspaper, eventually renamed the London Gazette. By the time of the abolition of the Star Chamber, printing restrictions were lifted, especially at the advent of the Civil War, when news became a precious commodity.

Duties paid for paper products and stamps were progressively reduced from the 1830s which encouraged the mass dissemination of newspapers in the country. There were 52 London newspapers in the first quarter of the 19th century, including the two most influential for that period, The Daily University Register, later to become The Times, and The Manchester Guardian, later to be renamed The Guardian. By 1855, newspapers with more mass appeal made its appearance as The Daily Telegraph and Courier, shortening its name to The Daily Telegraph.

The first instance of yellow journalism, defined as the sensationalism or tabloidism that proliferated with the rise of partisan newspapers occurred between 1860 and 1910, also the period of the rise of socialist and labour newspapers. The term yellow journalism arose from the circulation battle between Joseph Pulitzer’s The World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal both in the city of New York. The Daily Herald, the first labour union newspaper, saw the light of day in 1912.

The 20th Century and World War I was the scene of the first big newspaper moguls headed by the Harmsworth Brothers and the Berry Brothers and later Max Aitken. The first tabloid newspapers emerged after World War II, dominated in 1963 by Cecil Harmsworth King of the International Publishing House, publishing more than 200 newspapers and magazines, including the record-breaking Daily Mirror.

By the 20th century, Fleet Street had become the centre for the British national press, at one time housing over a dozen major daily newspapers with diverse political stances. These included the liberal The Guardian, conservative The Daily Telegraph and Labour party advocate Daily Mirror. However, in the 1980s, the publications started moving away, the last hold-out being British news office Reuters, who moved out in 2005.

Professional journalism

As earlier mentioned, technological innovations enabled the mass production and distribution of news, which became a lucrative undertaking. This mass circulation gave journalist a wide audience they could influence because most people believe what they read in the papers. At first, the press took on the role as a social conscience, providing the masses with information about what the government and big businesses are doing. But as the resistance to press freedom intensified, the journalistic claim that “the public has the right to know” gave rise to abuse of press freedom by irresponsible journalists, seeking to raise circulation by publishing  sensationalist articles.

In response, legitimate journalists joined forces to impose rigorous standards for investigation and reporting, developing an ethical framework based on impartiality, accuracy, transparency and objectivity. (“New media journalism: how professional reporters are being influenced by the internet,” 2006) Some critics of this structure maintain that objectivity in journalism is a paradox.

What is reported is based on the subjective selection of the journalist of what is in important information, a view that may differ from one journalist to the other. (Media Lens, 2005)  However, The National Union of Journalists even claims that recent attempts by the Press Complaints Commission to improve the Code of Practice for journalism fall short of the ethical standards established by the NUJ and followed by all its members. (“NUJ Code of Conduct is still stricter than PCC guidelines,” 2007) The following tables encompass the codes as embodied in the PCC and NUJ.

Table I: CODE OF PRACTICE (Ratified by the Press Complaints Commission – 26th November 1997)

Source: http://www.uta.fi/ethicnet/uk2.html

All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards. This code sets the benchmarks for those standards. It both protects the rights of the individual and upholds the public’s right to know.

The code is the cornerstone of the system of self-regulation to which the industry has made a binding commitment. Editors and publishers must ensure that the code is observed rigorously not only by their staff but also by anyone who contributes to their publications.

It is essential to the workings of an agreed code that it be honoured not only to the letter but in the full spirit. The code should not be interpreted so narrowly as to compromise its commitment to respect the rights of the individual, nor so broadly that it prevents publication in the public interest.

It is the responsibility of editors to co-operate with the PCC as swiftly as possible in the resolution of complaints.

Any publication which is criticised by the PCC. under one of the following clauses must print the adjudication which follows in full and with due prominence

The public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1.       The public interest includes:

i)                    Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour.

ii)                  Protecting public health and safety.

iii)                Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.

2.       In any case where the public interest is invoked, the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor demonstrating how the public interest was served.

3.       In cases involving children, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interests of the child.

1. Accuracy

i)                    Newspapers and periodicals should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material including pictures.

ii)                  Whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published, it should be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

iii)                An apology must be published whenever appropriate.

iv)                 Newspapers, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact

v)                   A newspaper or periodical must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party.

2. Opportunity to reply

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given to individuals or organisations when reasonably called for.

3. Privacy*

i)                    Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. A publication will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent

ii)                  The use of long lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent is unacceptable.

Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

4. Harassment*

i)                    Journalists and photographers must neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit

ii)                  They must not photograph individuals in private places (as defined by the note to clause 3) without their consent; must not persist in telephoning, questioning, pursuing or photographing individuals after having been asked to desist; must not remain on their property after having been asked to leave and must not follow them.

iii)                Editors must ensure that those working for them comply with these requirements and must not publish material from other sources which does not meet these requirements.

5. Intrusion into grief or shock

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. Publication must be handled sensitively at such times but this should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.

6.Children*

i)                    Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii)                  Journalists must not interview or photograph a child under the age of 16 on subjects involving the welfare of the child or any other child in the absence of or without the consent of a parent or other adult who is responsible for the children.

iii)                Pupils must not be approached or photographed while at school without the permission of the school authorities.

iv)                 There must be no payment to minors for material involving the welfare of children nor payments to parents or guardians for material about their children or wards unless it is demonstrably in the child’s interest.

v)                   Where material about the private life of a child is published, there must be justification for publication other than the fame, notoriety or position of his or her parents or guardian.

7. Children in sex cases

1.       The press must not, even where the law does not prohibit it, identify children under the age of 16 who are involved in cases concerning sexual offences, whether as victims or as witnesses.

2.       In any press report of a case involving a sexual offence against a child –

i)                    The child must not be identified.

ii)                  The adult may be identified.

iii)                The word “incest” must not be used where a child victim might be identified.

iv)                  Care must be taken that nothing in the report implies the relationship between the accused and the child.

8. Listening Devices*

Journalists must not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations.

9. Hospitals*

i)                    Journalists or photographers making enquiries at hospitals or similar institutions should identify themselves to a responsible executive and obtain permission before entering non-public areas.

ii)                  The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions.

10. Innocent relatives and friends*

The press must avoid identifying relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime without their consent.

11. Misrepresentation*

i)                    Journalists must not generally obtain or seek to obtain information or pictures through misrepresentation or subterfuge.

ii)                  Documents or photographs should be removed only with the consent of the owner.

iii)                Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means.

12. Victims of sexual assault

The press must not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification unless there is adequate justification and, by law, they are free to do so.

13. Discrimination

i)                    The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii)                  It must avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability unless these are directly relevant to the story.

14. Financial journalism

i)                    Even where the law does not prohibit it, journalists must not use for their own profit financial information they receive in advance of its general publication, nor should they pass such information to others.

ii)                  They must not write about shares or securities in whose performance they know that they or their close families have a significant financial interest without disclosing the interest to the editor or financial editor.

iii)                They must not buy or sell, either directly or through nominees or agents, shares or securities about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future.

15. Confidential sources

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.

16. Payment for articles*

i)                    Payment or offers of payment for stories or information must not be made directly or through agents to witnesses or potential witnesses in current criminal proceedings except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and there is an overriding need to make or promise to make a payment for this to be done. Journalists must take every possible step to ensure that no financial dealings have influence on the evidence that those witnesses may give.

(An editor authorising such a payment must be prepared to demonstrate that there is a legitimate public interest at stake involving matters that the public has a right to know. The payment or, where accepted, the offer of payment to any witness who is actually cited to give evidence should be disclosed to the prosecution and the defence and the witness should be advised of this).

ii)                  ii) Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information, must not be made directly or through agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates – who may include family, friends and colleagues – except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done.

Table II: CODE OF CONDUCT

Adopted on 29 June 1994 by British National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

Source: http://www.uta.fi/ethicnet/uk.html

  1. A journalist has a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.
  1. A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the press and other media in relation to the collection of information and the expression of comment and criticism. He/she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship.
  1. A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/ she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation.
  1. A journalist shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised when the issue is of sufficient importance.
  1. A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straight- forward means. The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means.
  1. Subject to the justification by over-riding considerations of the public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress.
  1. A journalist shall protect confidential sources of information.
  1. A journalist shall not accept bribes nor shall he/ she allow other inducements to influence the performance of his/ her professional duties.
  1. A journalist shall not lend himself/ herself to the distortion or suppression of the truth because of advertising or other considerations.
  1. A journalist shall only mention a person’s age, race, colour, creed, illegitimacy, disability, marital status (or lack of it), gender or sexual orientation if this information is strictly relevant. A journalist shall neither originate nor process material which encourages discrimination, ridicule, prejudice or hatred on any of the above-mentioned grounds.
  1. A journalist shall not take private advantage of information gained in the course of his/ her duties, before the information is public knowledge.
  1. A journalist shall not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save for the promotion of his/ her own work or of the medium by which he/ she is employed.

As the journalistic profession became more organized and membership into accredited bodies became a requirement for credibility, the influential and powerful only needed to convince a few people in key positions to favour only information gathered from legitimate or “official” sources. Mainly this was comprised of information doled out by government officials and influential, private individuals. Officialdom began to set the tone for the professional press, and any disagreement to such an agenda began to be considered “biased” journalism. Statement of opinions was considered unprofessional, unless they happened to concur or reinforce official sources. (Media Lens, 2005)

It gradually became necessary to attend journalism school in order to practice as a journalist, another step in the professionalism project. Some decry this as an attempt to mould prospective journalists into the prescribed direction of what is considered legitimate reporting. Some claim that the “professionalism” taught in journalism schools are highly influenced by big corporate publishers, media monopolies, under the guise of objective and balanced reporting. The training involves presumptions of the proper sources for legitimate news, the so-called “official sources.” These include prominent public and government figures. (Media Lens, 2005)

War and peace

Censorship of news is accomplished through a system referred to as the buzz saw. Anyone covering sensitive stories that deal with powerful people may be subject to this, and usually has an adverse effect on journalistic careers. (Media Lens, 2005)  This is especially true when reporting on war. British journalist and war correspondent mused, “When you stand at the site of a massacre, two things happen. First, you wonder about the depths of the human spirit. And then you ask yourself how many lies can be told about it.”

Journalists have accepted that in times of war, the rules of journalism follows certain rules, chief among is to sustain the illusion that government decisions and actions are always just and right, and that the “other side” is always doing atrocities and lies. This is a form of patriotism that takes precedence over the clear-headed reporting of facts as they occur. It is the unspoken rule that journalists take sides, and always on the side of the government. This has been the case ever since the first civilian British war correspondent was send to Crimea in 1854.

British television and radio announcer John Humphrys stated it in a nutshell, “In times of peace it is our job to question politicians vigorously, with the hope that they will answer the questions in the listeners’ heads. So long as we do not stray into operational areas and jeopardize our servicemen and servicewomen, I cannot for the life of me see why it should be different in times of war.” (Pesic, 1999)

Yet, while in peace time patriotism is not an overt requirement, is it not true that journalists still prefer the status quo? That is, sustaining the balance of power by taking a favourable view of the establishment? It is easy, even encouraged, to report on the good things the powerful and influential are doing.

There is no fierce scrambling to verify sources once, twice even thrice, as is in the case of any adverse reporting that may be done against the established order. This appears to be an echoing of the “we” and “they” perspective. Unfortunately, the “we” and “they” in peacetime involve people of one national identity. This is hardly a defensible position.  And this phenomenon is not peculiar to the British press. In fact, it seems to be the rule for legitimate press all over the world.

Amateur journalism

The advent of electronic media has challenged this state of journalistic affairs to a significant degree. As a reaction to rising costs associated with printing on paper, the idea to post online unpublished (because of space constraints) articles on a single webpage occurred to journalist and photographer Patrick Trollope in 1998. Interest in the website swiftly grew, encouraging the eventual establishment of the UK’s first online-only regional newspaper Southport Reporter. It is a recognized member of the NUJ and subscribes to the rules and regulations established by the organization.

However, it is not the professional websites that has been changing the face of journalism in the world, and perhaps particularly in UK. It is the “amateur” sites such as web logs, forums, vlogs, even wikis that are defying the control and codes imposed by professionalism advocates.

The problem with this amateur journalism, from the point of view of professional journalists, is their blithe unconcern for established order. There are no qualifications to join a forum or to respond to a topic on a weblog. People need not be a journalism graduate to share their knowledge about the best way to get coffee stains out of linen, or to discuss the state of cafeteria food at their children’s school.

Perhaps if these sites limited themselves to such inocuous topics then professional journalists would not be so down on “amateur” journalists. While it is true they are “unqualified” based on established norms, non-membership in the NUJ or any other association does not prevent a housewife in London to have an opinion, perhaps even knowledge, about the war in Serbia.

Professional journalists appear to forget that the first reporters in the UK had similar characteristics to today’s weblogger. They were average citizens with ordinary occupations such as postmasters or travelling salesmen with some news to impart, unverifiable for the most part, yet news nonetheless. At that time, print journalism was the “new” media, much like what online journalism is today.

The most fundamental difference between these two stages of the 17th and 21st Century in journalism is that the latter shared news on the weather, trading, political situation in the surrounding counties and perhaps news from the war, much like what legitimate news is today. The former is more opinion driven, personal views of the world around them and the circumstances that conspire to induce discussion. There are no claims to legitimacy or verifiability from official sources. The new media of electronic reporting is the expression the masses in reaction to the official stand of the privileged few. In a way, it is the new socialism of journalism.

Discussion

Twentieth century journalist James Cameron, considered by many to be the greatest British journalist of modern times, refers to journalism as a craft rather than a profession, meaning he considered it an occupation which takes years of apprenticeship to hone to a skill. In history, UK journalism has followed a path to professionalism as an inevitable conclusion to pressures of political influence, market forces and the bottom line.

Even yellow journalism has found a place in the ranks, albeit at the lower levels of the hierarchy. While it would be irresponsible to categorize this as propaganda, the rigid control and censorship of British journalism that has arisen from the development of the profession has made it less responsive to mass opinion and more inclined to follow the dictates of an official agenda. In the UK, especially, where the passion for following rules of conduct permeates the whole society, professional journalists have had to toe a very fine line indeed.

Yet the desire to expose the truth in all its forms has persisted in the manner in which journalists pursue the gathering of information, While this may have no forum in legitimate publications, many have found a voice in the new media of electronic publishing. No rigid rules control the expression of opinion, and while some denounce this as unqualified, even unaccountable, this is no detriment to these thousand, even millions of amateurs.

            Professionalism in journalism is the pursuit of regulation that attempts to establish legitimacy and credibility in their endeavors. Dissenters and critics of officialdom decry to imposition of censorship and control. This is not necessarily an unfortunate state of affairs, because it provides the public with a basis for opinion, debate and discussion and encourages a healthy watchdog system. Professionalism in journalism will evolve eventually to provide for this growing population of mass-driven media and perhaps this will serve to shift the focus in journalism more from agenda to truth.

References

Dico, J. & Elliott, F. (2006) Journalists have no morality, PM’s wife tells students. Independent News and Media Limited. Retrieved May 16, 2007 from http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article2016131.ece

Dohnanyi, J. & Möller, C. (2003) The impact of media concentration on professional journalism. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.osce.org/publications/rfm/2003/12/12244_102_en.pdf

Evetts, J. (2000) Professions in European and UK Markets; the European Professional Federations. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Vol. 20 No. 11/12

History of British newspapers. (2007, May 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:00, May 18, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_British_newspapers&oldid=129834454

Media Lens (2005) Thought control and “professional” journalism. Dissident Voice. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Nov05/MediaLens1103.htm

Neal, M. & Morgan, J. (2000) The Professionalisation of Everyone? A comparative study of the development of the professions in the United Kingdom and Germany. European Sociological Review Vol. 16 No.1 pp9-26

NUJ Code of Conduct is still stricter than PCC guidelines. (2007) National Union of Journalists. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.nuj.org.uk/

Pesic, M. (1999) Patriotism versus professionalism. Media Diversity Institute.  Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.media-diversity.org/articles_publications/patriotism%20versus%20professionalism.htm

UK ruling seen protecting investigative journalism. (2006) Reuters. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://today.reuters.com/news/articlebusiness.aspx?type=telecomm&storyid=nL11772231&WTmodLoc=BizArt-R3-Insights-1&from=business

Wallace, M. (2006) New media journalism: how professional reporters are being influenced by the internet. Robin Good. Retrieved May 17, 2007 from http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2006/11/10/new_media_journalism_how_professional.htm

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