June 07, 2003
Is Journalism A Profession?

In a long and fascinating post, Matt Welch quotes Mark Steyn as saying that he doesn't think journalism is a profession. I don't know about Canada or the U.K., but it never will be a profession in the U.S., and that's a good thing.

Professions have enforceable standards. Bad doctors can have their medical licenses lifted, lawyers can be disbarred, priests can be defrocked, and so on. It seems to me that the First Amendment forbids the enforcement of journalistic standards. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass may find it difficult or impossible ever again to find a paid position in journalism: I certainly hope so. But they could, either together or separately, start journals or newspapers of their own, and there's nothing anyone could do to stop them without violating the constitution. That means that the worst and most dishonest journalists cannot be prevented from practicing journalism unless they actually do something that puts them in jail, and many forms of gross journalistic malpractice are not illegal. Since journalism has no enforceable standards it is therefore not a profession.

At least so it seems to me: can anyone find a hole in my logic?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 07, 2003 01:00 AM

Dr. W, you are quoting Florence King without realizing it.

"There are only three professions: medicine, law, and the clergy.

Practitioners of professions go it alone; they hang out a shingle and wait for people to come to them. Thwy do not join labor unions or go on strike because they are motivated — or should be — not by mere interest or naked greed but by a "calling." Their income varies by how much work they do; they do a certain abount of pro bono work in a spirit of noblesse oblige. They can be sued for malpractice, and they are bound by "professional privilege" — what goes on between them and their clients is secret and they cannot be made to reveal it.

Teaching is not a profession but a unionized job loaded with benefits. Journalists are reporters, architects are builders, and writers are craftsmen — a run-on sentence to me is like an overlong table leg to a carpenter: I saw it off and sand it down."

That is a bleeding chunk of a terrific short essay called "The Graves of Academe." The parent book is Lump It Or Leave It.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on June 7, 2003 08:00 PM

Thanks. I don't believe I've read that essay. I think there are other fields that qualify as professions, though journalism is not one of them. I'll have to ask my father, older brother, or oldest nephew, but I believe an engineer who screws up can be prevented from practicing it afterwards, though I'm not sure whether it would be the state or the professional societies or both that would apply the sanctions. I'm pretty sure they (incompetent engineers, I mean, not my relatives) can be sued for malpractice, too, if they violate the recognized standards of their profession, e.g. by designing a bridge that falls down under normal wear and tear. On the other hand, I doubt that engineers have any right to secrecy in their dealings with their clients. Anyway, engineering is certainly far closer to a profession than journalism will (or can) ever be.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on June 7, 2003 09:52 PM

Anyone can be sued for malpractice these days, and anyone who screws up sufficiently at a sufficiently important job can be evicted from that line of work in practice if not de jure, purely by word of mouth. (The more important what you were doing when you screwed up, of course, the further the news of the screw-up will travel.)

There are a couple typos in the Florence King chunk, but also one omitted word that I though I'd better fix. I typed

Teaching is not a profession but a unionized job loaded with benefits.

She wrote

Teaching is not a profession but a unionized government job loaded with benefits.

Makes a slight difference to her meaning.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on June 7, 2003 11:21 PM

Exactly right about journalism. As for other professions, I think accounting qualifies.

Posted by: Conrad on June 8, 2003 11:41 PM

To be a professional journalist, it seems, is to be skilled at nothing except discussing all the things one does not know about.

Posted by: Sean Kirby on June 9, 2003 12:08 AM

And if I may say - to be a media critic (that is, a journalist who only writes about journalism) reaches an almost sysiphian level of absurdity. Even pushing a rock up a hill forever has more existential nobility than the poor Times hack whose job it is to cover the Jayson Blair scandel.

Posted by: Sean Kirby on June 9, 2003 12:12 AM

There's the world's oldest profession, often conflated with journalism.

Nor is 'social science' science, btw.
Social diseases are diseases, however.

Posted by: Noel on June 9, 2003 01:59 AM

That part of the Florence King essay was prefaced by her complaint that the term "profession" has become blurred and distorted by credential-hungry modern society. Wait. I have the book; I will quote:

Let's stop referring to every white-collar job as a "profession."
Then it goes into what Michelle quoted above. I think she would consider engineers to be in the same category as architects. This is not to disrespect engineers or architects -- notice she downgrades her own career choice, refusing to treat her craft as more than what it is.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on June 9, 2003 12:57 PM

Journalism could be called a "craft". Linguistically, I suppose it would have some claim to be a "profession", since people profess to be journalists by nature or inclination. "Professors" of journalism undoubtedly exist. Journalism differs from medicine or law in that it is not a "guild" where the in-group keeps everyone from practicing except those who kowtow to it, under penalty of prison, if they persist. As to Florence King, I would be willing to bet that more than half the practicing lawyers and many doctors are salaried by large institutions. Perhaps bloggers, by King's definition, would be the only individual practitioners of journalism. Is blogging a "profession"? Electronic shingles can be hung out by anyone. But until we get a guild and can imprison people for "unauthorized practice of blogging", I guess we're not true professionals.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 9, 2003 01:41 PM

This lawyer says that the estimable Miss King left a few out. Engineers and architects certainly. I'd say the defining characteristic of a profession is the requirement to learn and master a large, challenging and essentially esoteric body of information exclusive to that line of endeavour (law, medicine, theology, and engineering and accounting principles all seem legitimate examples - other kinds of work that require licenses, like cutting hair, do not) combined with the licensure and threat of censure and expulsion if performance is not adequate and/or ethical.

Anyone who can string a sentence together well enough get hired by any old rag of a broadsheet can be a journalist. J-schools may confer some of the conceits of being in a profession on their grads, but that line of work lacks both the significant, scholarly barrier to entry and the possibility of expulsion.

Incidentally, while government-mandated licensure of journalists would be both unconstitutional and a manifest evil, were the industry to codify its own, strictly private standards and enforce them, that would not only be legitimate, it might well dramatically improve their product.

Posted by: Dodd on June 9, 2003 02:39 PM

Engineers have professional registration. Dad Weevil (now retired) was a PE (professional engineer) in the Commonweath of Virginia and worked on lighting and power systems. However, I've been working as an engineer for 20+ years without registration.

It's a slight exaggeration to say that a PE is only needed for the design of things that don't move (e.g., bridges), but not for things that are mobile (the cars going over the bridges).

I've never bothered with registration since my entire career has been with NASA and DOD contractors. Especially for DOD projects, if the purpose of the system is to destroy stuff and kill people, it hardly seems worthwhile to insist that the engineers have professional registration so that the sytem will be "safe."

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on June 9, 2003 09:06 PM

Three criteria taught to me in the USMC for professional status: (1) defined standards of conduct (2) enforced within the profession (3) with the goal of the profession being service to the community as a whole. The point taught was that (3) could not really be achieved without (1) and (2). Thus delivered, teaching should be a profession, but (3) fails for lack of (1)(little agreement as to standards) and (2) (self-serving Teachers unions interfere with professionalism instead of enforce it).

Posted by: Steve Malynn on June 10, 2003 05:18 PM

Uhhh...steevil, I believe there's a DoD requirement that there be a PE in some position of power on most Defense contracts. I know I've worked more than one program where the PI had to have a PE. Sorry, can't cite a source for you. I know that the TD on the THAAD SETA program had to have a PE, though.

That said, I've got 20 years of experience (coming up in August) and I don't have a PE. Passing a PE exam requires knowledge of air-conditioning and suchlike that really has nothing to do with my current job assignment as a nav guy.

Posted by: David Perron on June 11, 2003 07:37 AM


I suspect the TD didn't have to sign off on stuff you designed. Do you suppose the req for a PE is just yet another example of DOD BS? I don't recall any PE approving designs I did when I was a 'radar guy.' BTW, I'm a 'nav guy' currently too.

Posted by: steevil on June 11, 2003 11:35 PM

But why is it important to know whether journalism is a profession or not?

Posted by: Seamogano Mosanako on October 1, 2003 12:34 PM

Dr. Weevil,
Architects and engineers are not required to hold licenses, it is the fear of looking like a moron that keeps them in line. You make good points about journalists having no real standard, but if you think about it, what would we do without them. We'd listen to every peice of propoganda that our somewhat sly government trys to throw at us. What i guess i'm trying to say is that if the only way a profession is a profession is for its members to have the ability to be legally blocked from performing work in that field by means other than incarceration for offenses not relating to the standards of their profession, then you just closed the door on half a million so called professions. To me anything that you spend a significant portion of your life just learning how to do effectively could theoretically be considered a profession. Now I will admit that there are many so called "journalists" in the field that have never been formally trained, but they are your examples on why Journalism is not a profession. Some might contend that modern artists such as Worhol and Pollack are not really artists (such as myself), but that is merely an opinion, and that's all any of this will ever be. Admit that.

Posted by: Ike Austin on October 27, 2003 05:00 PM