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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who Says You're A Journalist?


Marcelo Moreira is the Editorial Director of TV Globo in Brazil, one of the leading tv news services in Latin America. Marcelo and I are on the advisory board of the International News Safety Institute (INSI), an organization committed to preparing journalists to go to war zones and helping journalists deal with trauma as a result of their journalistic experiences.

Marcelo brought a recent interesting development to our attention : by an 8–1 vote, Brazil's Supreme Court overturned the law requiring a journalism degree for all practicing members of the profession.

Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes, writing for the majority, said that journalism "is connected to the broad exercise of freedom of expression and information, and the degree requirement goes against the Constitution, which guarantees those freedoms."

Citing the recent repeal of Brazil's press censorship law, Mendes argued that the media can still regulate itself. “Nothing prevents [media companies] from asking for a college journalism degree,” he stated.

The question for INSI members from Marcelo was this: "...is it true that, even if not legally necessary, the major newspapers and communication companies hire their professionals (from) among those who...graduate(d) or took master's degree in journalism schools?"

Gavin Rees is the co-ordinator for the DART Centre Europe, a London-based resource center for covering trauma and violence:

The situation in the UK is similar to the US, one doesn't need a professional qualification to become a journalist. Some newspapers, particularly local ones, will insist on reporters taking NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualifications. Those exams cover the law and the major craft aspects of journalism.

The elite power route used to be top UK university and then on-the-job training, with journalism school seen as of marginal use. That's no longer true for a number of reasons. Many of the big papers and broadcasters have effectively given up on their own training schemes over the last few years. And so masters courses have in the UK been increasingly valued both by prospective journalists and their employers, as they meet a shortfall.


Aidan White from the International Federation of Journalists observes:

I'm less cheered by the news from Brazil, not because I think for a minute that the government is dictating who should be a journalist, or that journalism should not be an open profession -- it should be -- but because I know that the bosses who fought this case were not motivated by love of press freedom, but did so because it allows them to deregulate the employment structure for journalists (meaning worse conditions, less pay and more precarious employment).

And Rosental Alves who directs the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin writes:

In the US, the last data I saw, from the mid 1990s, showed that 85% of new hires in newsrooms came from schools of journalism despite the fact that there is no legal requirement of a degree in journalism. The same study showed however, that many of the best journalists in the country were not journalism graduates.

I am saddened by the feeling of many journalists and journalism students in Brazil that the Supreme Court decision is an apocalyptical defeat, the end of the world and the result of a diabolic conspiracy of the media companies that just want to pay less in salaries and hire unqualified people to replace journalism graduates. Well, it is not the end of the world, nor the end of the schools of journalism and, despite the legitimate and serious concerns about companies that may see here an opportunity to exploit even more their employees, I don’t expect a significant change in the work conditions in the newsrooms. In fact, many news organizations have ignored the law in a deliberate civil disobedience act and have hired journalists who have not earned degrees in journalism.

The new cause célèbre of journalists in Brazil is to fight for the congress to pass a new law re-establishing the degree requirement. If this happened, Brazil would be back to its embarrassing situation of going against the strong international jurisprudence that considers any restriction to the right of a person to become a journalist a violation to her Human Rights. In fact, the Inter American Court of Human Rights has already forced other Latin American countries to abolish such requirements, considered a violation of article 13 of the Inter American Convention of Human Rights (Brazil is one of the countries that signed this convention).

I would rather see the unions and the journalists more concerned about work conditions in the news organizations, and with great projects like the one INSI and the (Brazilian) unions have helped to put together in Rio and Sao Paulo on training on safety, than fighting to re-establish the degree requirement. With more than 500 schools of journalism in (the US), many of them of low quality and apparently more concerned with making a profit than really training journalists, I really don’t think the degree requirement is the best fight to be fought nowadays.


I didn't graduate from a j-school, but I teach at one now. My own view is that journalism schools tend to deepen the best qualities of the better students. It's not that you can't be a journalist without having graduated from a j-school. But these days, it's an unquestionable advantage in this tightened work market.

Moreover, it's not the job of government to determine who and who is not a journalist. But with the proliferation of bloggers and citizen journalists, the question of who has the "right" credentials becomes more complicated, even for media organizations.

The situation in Brazil, as elsewhere, argues strongly for more news ombudsmen as a way of furthering the concept of independent and self-regulatory journalism. Ombudsmen (or readers' editor or public editors as they are also known) are pretty good at determining what constitutes reliable journalism - despite the presence or absence of j-school grads in a newsroom.

Brazil already has a strong core of ombuds (members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen) whose job it is to help make the journalism more transparent and accountable, while informing the public what constitutes best practices. I suggested to Marcelo that he talk to them about their experiences.

Ombuds also have a useful way of inviting public involvement in the news to forestall and push back inappropriate intrusions from government and pressure groups. When news organizations are truly independent, that's when they best serve the interests of the public by making journalism stronger and by pointing out to journalists and the public alike, what constitutes excellent journalism. At the same time, ombudsmen can make the job of journalism a lot safer by shining a light on how journalism is actually practiced.

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