Conference explores regulation of journalists, government funding of news media and other “big” questions



Defining who is and who isn’t a journalist is a challenge in the rapidly evolving news media, Ryerson journalism professor Ivor Shapiro said recently at a conference on law and ethics in investigative journalism.

Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, observed that journalists, unlike doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals, do not join a regulated profession. So the public is faced with the problem of deciding “who the hell a journalist is,” he said during an Oct. 14th panel presentation at York University.

Leading journalists, editors, lawyers and academics met at York’s Osgoode Hall law school for a conference called In the Public Interest: The Law and Ethics of Investigative Journalism. Along with Shapiro, the journalism school’s adjunct professor Brian Rogers was also a speaker.

The full-day program focused on what Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor and one of the panel moderators, called “really big questions… As big as they come.”

Challenges like media accountability and anonymity of sources were also on the agenda, but the draw for most journalists was the first panel, called Meet the Press.

In addition to Shapiro, the panel included Ottawa University professor Michael Geist, also known for his freelance reporting and blogging, and Dominique Payette, a Quebec journalist-turned-journalism-rights advocate and journalism professor at Université Laval.

At the request of the Quebec government, Payette produced a recent report on media issues in that province, including the diversity of sources, funding and media ownership.

As director of Quebec’s Working Group on Journalism and the Future of News, the former Radio-Canada journalist’s report, delivered last December, included recommendations on how to slow the shrink of newsroom staff. Using France as its prime example, Payette’s report also suggested a system of registration for professional journalists. Registered journalists would have advantages over the average citizen, including priority when it came to obtaining government documents.

This was the first time Payette spoke in Ontario about her controversial recommendations – described as a “truly bad idea” by the Toronto Star.

Shapiro and Geist both questioned the professional-status designation, saying it might create two classes, giving one (professional journalists) permanent entitlement while pushing the other (average citizens) further back in the queue.

Payette, however, insisted “there is nothing in this plan that takes anything away from anyone.” Instead, she says, it would help “those who have nothing,” particularly freelance and independent journalists who need help with reporting strategies and standing up for themselves.

The report also suggests all professional journalists be held accountable by a code of ethics established by their peers.

A universal set of guidelines would help journalists in ethically sticky situations, says Payette, by creating a support system of peers, and identifying universal standards for editors. For example, if a journalist wants to keep a source’s identity anonymous, there would be a set of instructions and criteria to turn to, as well as a group of peers to back him or her up. “It’s not journalists we want to protect, it’s their way of working,” Payettte said.

Shapiro and Geist noted, however, that none of this really solves the question of who gets to call themselves journalists.

“Do I get my status [as a professional journalist] just by promising to abide by a code of conduct?” asked Shapiro. If so, the issue of patrolling the code is an issue.

Giest said Payette’s report is also unclear about how bloggers and freelancers would be categorized.

He argued that these groups often get the best stories because they are “willing to push the envelope” in ways that mainstream media organizations do not because of their dependence on corporate advertising.  In this sense, he said, they should be considered journalists too, and be entitled to the same advantages.

Payette’s report is still being discussed in the Quebec legislature, but 85 percent of the Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec say they favour a legal status for journalists.

Payette also suggests government funding be made available to the employers of “professional” journalists. “Only 17 percent of news [from local papers] is original information” on average, she said, citing a 2002 study done in the United States. The study found that most  “news” reporting is gathered by large outlets like Associated Press and Reuters, and is then recycled by others including aggregators and bloggers.

Payette argued that budgets for newsgathering are under threat because of changes in the way corporations advertise in the internet age. Ad space in newspapers is no longer coveted, and when ads run online companies expect metric data (like number of clicks the ad generates). Payette says that this method of financing means there’s less interest in reporting general news, because advertisers target certain markets. A sporting goods store, for example, would pay to have its ad in the sports section and that would encourage investments in more sports reporting. An executive recruiting firm would want its ad in the business section. Advertisers are increasingly aware of the placement of their ads, she noted. Given the choice, most advertisers look for a specific audience, and are willing to pay more for this.

“These economic choices push public interest [stories] to the side,” Payette warned. “Without state intervention, original content will continue to fail.”

More than half the members of the Fédération des Journalistes agree that journalism “in the public interest” would fail without some government aid, but Geist expressed concern about the impact public funding might have on news content. “How will you make sure the government doesn’t manipulate professional journalists?” he asked.

Shapiro seemed more open to the idea of government funding. The Canadian government funds the CBC, which provides some of the best content in the country, he noted.

“[State-funded media] hasn’t killed us yet. This is not a new concept. It’s been in practice for decades in some European countries,” he said.

Citing her years at Radio-Canada, Payette noted, that “journalists are intelligent people. They will know if [government censorship is] happening, and know how to get around that.”

The panel concluded with little consensus on who should draw up a list of official journalists or the best way to fund journalism.

“Journalists are not doctors, protecting life. Or lawyers, holding up the pillars of the law. Or engineers, holding up the pillars of bridges,” said Shapiro. “All that journalists do is this: we speak. Maybe freedom of speech is the only freedom we should claim.”

Click here to read the full Payette report, published in French.

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