Is journalism a profession?

Alan MiddletonBy Professor Alan Middleton

A fundamental question for journalists, about which there is little agreement, is whether journalism is a profession as the concept is normally understood. It is difficult to accept that it is a profession in the normal sense of the word: it is increasingly university-based but there is no agreed core body of scientific knowledge underpinning it; there is no agreed set of values and norms conditioning behaviour; representative organisations and training organisations are disjointed and conflicted; and the majority of journalists are not accredited. The primacy of the attachment to the freedom of the press (that is, the freedom of the organisations journalists work for) also creates a barrier to the development of responsible ethical practice. Throughout the industry, the freedom of newspapers is held to be more important than responsible professional journalism.

If journalism were a profession, British journalists would be in control of the values and norms that guide their behaviour. At the moment, the debate is about the culture of the newsroom, rather than the culture of journalism. Leveson was concerned with the former, but the concept of culture was treated only superficially by his Inquiry and the broader notion of the culture of journalism, as something distinct from corporate culture, was not examined at all.

Professional culture is expressed in the particular values, norms and ways of behaving of a profession, rather than the culture of the organisations where they work. It is also different from the cultural context of the society in which the profession practices, but not necessarily in conflict. It usually represents distinct values and rules of behaviour that are consistent with the wider cultural context. It is difficult to argue that this has recently been true of journalism.

In the post-Leveson debate about Royal Charters, newspaper owners and their editors have assumed the right to speak for the “profession”. They have made this explicit in their opposition to Parliament’s Charter. However, the key to creating an ethical culture for journalism requires journalists themselves to reappraise, determine and agree the limits of their freedoms and responsibilities.

This is a longer-term project than a regulatory fix. Changing the culture of journalism is about more than providing redress for bad organisational behaviour. The immediate need to deal with the criminality of some newspapers has understandably been more important than a discussion of the inter-generational transmission of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and ways of behaving, which are the historical and deep-seated roots of any culture. However, these issues need to be addressed by journalists and those responsible for training new entrants to the field.

University educators are already involved in some of these debates, but they will have an even more important role to play in the future. There is a need for a re-evaluation of journalism as a profession, a realistic assessment of its traditional values in an age of democracy, an examination of professional authority and regulation and, based on the history of journalism as an occupation in search of values, a new proposal for professional practice.

Alan Middleton is Chief Executive of the Governance Foundation and Emeritus Professor of Urban Studies at Birmingham City University. His new e-book, Journalism beyond Leveson: Professional Culture versus Delinquent Subculture is available on Kindle.