A young reporter in Athens, Georgia, in the mid-1960s covered a debate. However, he omitted the key fact that it was a debate when he wrote the story, making it sound as if the participants were having a real difference of opinion, instead of sparring intellectually. That was his last error before he was fired.1
Fast-forward 40-plus years and imagine that same young reporter as a blogger. Would he face any consequences for erring far too frequently? "There's nobody to fire a blogger," says Philip Meyer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer brought up the idea of voluntary certification in his 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age. He said the certification idea was the only part some reviewers took exception to.2
Coincidentally, at least one source has suggested that 2004's U.S. presidential election involving incumbent Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator John Kerry was the first in which blogs were important. "The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election: Divided They Blog," by Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance, cited Swiftvets.com's attack on Kerry's Vietnam War record, as well as Powerline's questions about newsman Dan Rather's sources for allegations of preferential treatment for Bush when he was in the Air Force Reserve during that war.3
"What's kept us as honest as we are is that journalism has required huge resources-a printing press or a broadcast station-so there have always been large, powerful institutions regulating things within their own companies," Meyer says. But journalism today has become decentralized with the growth of the Internet. While some blogs might have supervision, many others do not. Meyer contends voluntary certification of a journalist's competence and ethics would enable the public to have a better idea of which reports could be trusted. He asks, "Wouldn't it help us to sort through all the interesting blogs if there was a seal that said, 'This blogger is a member in good standing of the Society of Professional Journalists'?"4
Now a professor emeritus in Chapel Hill, Meyer was a newspaperman for 25 years before he joined the UNC faculty in 1981 as the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was granted the Knight Chair in Journalism before he reached emeritus status in 2008, the same year in which he was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. His 1973 book, Precision Journalism: A Reporter's Introduction to Social Science Methods, is now in its fourth edition.5
Meyer stresses that new certification programs, like existing ones, would be entirely voluntary. Making them mandatory would amount to licensing, which he- and many others-believe is not allowed by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, some leaders in American journalism have expressed doubt about Meyer's idea. David Carlson, 2005-06 Society of Professional Journalists president, seems representative. He said in 2006: "I have the utmost respect for Phil Meyer, but the concept of certifying journalists is troubling to me, because it's only one step removed from licensing journalists, which SPJ would never approve, and I'm sure Phil Meyer wouldn't either. I fear it could lead to licensing, and part of democracy is the need for a free press."6
In a 2008 publication, Meyer responded to that sort of argument: "Have you ever heard anyone say that universities should refrain from offering journalism degrees because Congress might make them a requirement for practicing journalism? Neither have I." He cited a 2006 survey in which newspaper editors said 85% of their new hires the previous year had journalism degrees. But he added, "The editors I know are always on the lookout for graduates in the liberal arts or in substantive specialties to round out their staffs."7
Meyer lists precedents for certification, starting with the 1879 U.S. House of Representatives' establishment of the Standing Committee of Correspondents to decide who got seats in the press gallery. The rules insist that "all Gallery members be bona fide news gatherers and/or reporters whose chief attention is given to- or more than one-half of their earned income derived from- the gathering or reporting of news."8
The first university to certify competence in journalism through a degree program was the University of Missouri in 1908. Certification in sub-specialties of journalism is becoming common. For example, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill offers a master's degree in medical journalism. The university also offers business journalism certification that requires three courses. Meyer points out television weather reporters usually are certified by either the American Meteorological Society or the National Weather Association. He names Realtors and certified public accountants as examples of professionals who choose to go beyond the minimum requirements of their fields.9 (Effective in 2012, the CPA designation will require 150 semester hours of college credit,10 as well as passing a four-section examination.11 "The Code of Professional Conduct and Bylaws" encompasses 365 pages, including cover, copyright information, table of contents and index.12)
The American Meteorological Society, in addition to certifying professional consulting meteorologists, offers a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) program. The CBM designation requires new applicants to have a meteorology degree "from an accredited college or university, pass a written examination and have their work reviewed for assessment of skills and competence." The society awarded more than 1,700 AMS Seals of Approval to on-air meteorologists between 1957 and 2008, but it no longer accepts applications for that designation.13
Kelly Savoie, manager, marketing/special programs for AMS, said those who had the seals by the end of 2008, "have the option to maintain them as long as they complete our professional development requirement every 5 years and pay their renewal fees annually."
"In 2005," Savoie said, "the AMS started a new certification program called the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) Program in order to raise the professional standard in broadcast meteorology and to encourage a broader range of scientific understanding, especially with respect to environmental issues."14
The National Weather Association requires its seal-holders to be employed in the field, with two years of full-time (at least four days a week "on-air as a weathercaster") experience or three years of part-time experience. Applicants also must pass a written examination "covering all or part of the following topics: general meteorology, radar and satellite meteorology, severe weather, synoptic meteorology, climatology, and technology/terminology."15
In the field of real estate, "The term REALTORr is a registered collective membership mark that identifies a real estate professional who is a member of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORSr and subscribes to its strict Code of Ethics."16 One requirement for membership is completion of two-and-a-half hours of ethics training every four years.17
Professionalism generally involves a commitment to both technical competence and moral behavior. The Public Relations Society of America adopted a code of ethics in 1950 and added an enforcement provision in 1959. Enforcement ended in 2000, along with adoption of "a new code focused on personal commitments to professional standards."18
Accreditation in public relations, signified by the letters APR following an accredited practitioner's name, began in 1964 as a "voluntary certification program for public relations professionals." At first it was administered by PRSA, but in 1998, "the Universal Accreditation Board was formed to administer the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations."19
Candidates for the APR designation have up to a year to prepare for a computer-based examination20 that encompasses public relations programs, ethics and law, communication theories, business literacy, management skills, crisis communication, media relations, information technology and public relations issues.21
The National Association of Broadcasters once had Radio and Television Codes of Good Practice to govern content and advertising, but lost the ability to enforce the advertising portion in a conflict with the U. S. Justice Department. The federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the code's prohibition against advertising two or more products in less than a minute-described as advertising clutter-violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.22 After this decision, the NAB abandoned both codes entirely.
Ironically, Meyer says the Media Bloggers Association has a statement of principles "that reads very much like a code of ethics." A bloggers' membership committee determines whether applicants "have a demonstrated history of a serious commitment to blogging evidenced by blogging for more than several months, posting regularly and frequently, and writing posts of some reasonable level of quality." Meyer comments, "This procedure makes the Media Bloggers Association more discriminating than the Society of Professional Journalists, which was founded in 1909 and has no formal qualification process."23
In journalism, Meyer proposes competency certification based on editing and reporting specialties. As an example, he points to copy editing.24
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School already has a five-course Editorial Practices Certificate Program. It requires courses in Principles of Editing for Publication; Printing, Layout and Design; Practice in Editing; and Proofreading. Students also must take either Legal Writing or Technical Writing to complete the program.25
The USDA Graduate School, "offers classes and programs in areas ranging from government-based specialties . to foreign languages, economics, leadership and management and the latest software training," according to a statement by Jerry Ice, CEO and president.26
For morality, Meyer recommends the SPJ Code of Ethics.27 (The Code of Ethics and Professional Practice of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, RTNDA-now known as the Radio Television Digital News Association, RTDNA-and the codes of various mass media firms contain many of the same points.)
The Web page for the SPJ Code has a warning label that reinforces Meyer's point about its voluntary nature, saying:
"The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of 'rules' but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not-nor can it be under the First Amendment-legally enforceable." A link leads to a more detailed explanation.28
Here is a look at that code of ethics, its history and contents. Founded as Sigma Delta Chi in 1909 at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., the Society of Professional Journalists switched from an honorary fraternity to a professional fraternity in 1916. In 1960 it reorganized into a professional society. The name change to Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, occurred in 1973. The Greek letters were dropped in 1988,29 although its affiliated educational foundation still uses them.
The organization adopted the Canons of Journalism of the American Society of Newspaper Editors as Sigma Delta Chi's first code of ethics in 1926. In 1973, the same year as one name change, the society adopted a new code of ethics. The code was revised in 1984 and again in 1987. A new code of ethics was adopted in 1996.30
Under Roman numeral I, Responsibility, the code stated in 1926, "The right of a newspaper to attract and hold readers is restricted by nothing but consideration of public welfare."31
In the 1973 version, the initial emphasis shifted from "the right of a newspaper" to the right of the public and the mission of mass media: "The public's right to know of events of public importance and interest is the overriding mission of the mass media." It concluded with VI, Pledge: "Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all news people. Adherence to this code of ethics is intended to preserve the bond of mutual trust and respect between American journalists and the American people."32
Between 1973 and 1987 there were two major journalism scandals that attracted public attention.
The Chicago Sun-Times almost won a Pulitzer Prize for its revelation of city inspection services corruption in 1978, but the judges felt that its ownership of the Mirage Bar to gather facts and photographs constituted a form of entrapment.33
Janet Cooke of the Washington Post won a 1980 Pulitzer for "Jimmy's World," but had to give it back when an investigation revealed that "Jimmy," supposedly an eight-year-old heroin addict, was a fictionalized creation.34
The 1987 SPJ code followed much the same pattern and wording as the 1973 version, but it added a sixth item under Ethics: "Plagiarism is dishonest and unacceptable." Roman numeral VI's heading changed to "Mutual Trust," and the emphasis changed. The revised wording said, "Adherence to this code is intended to preserve and strengthen the bond of mutual trust and respect between American journalists and the American people. "The Society shall- by programs of education and other means- encourage individual journalists to adhere to these tenets, and shall encourage journalistic publications and broadcasters to recognize their responsibility to frame codes of ethics in concert with their employees to serve as guidelines in furthering these goals."35
Even with this code (and RTNDA's) in place, two events in 1992 led many to doubt the ability of news personnel to police themselves.
The ABC Prime Time Live report on the Food Lion grocery chain's food handling practices was based on employees' use of fake resumes to get jobs inside the plant and film the practices with hidden cameras.36
"Waiting to Explode" was Dateline NBC's exposé of the possibility of gas tanks on General Motors pickup trucks exploding, but it was broadcast without revealing how the aired re-enactment was rigged to ensure that a gas leak would result in an explosion.37
The 1996 code of ethics begins with the first Preamble labeled as such. It says:
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.38
Under the "Seek Truth" heading, two sections read:
"Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it."
"Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public."39
Additional well-publicized journalism scandals since 1996- such as those involving Stephen Glass of the New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelly of USA Today- show a continuing need for an emphasis on ethics.
Meyer's Electronic News commentary on his voluntary certification proposal summarizes:
The history of professional associations has shown that their formation usually comes in response to a market need. Members want to distinguish themselves from competitors with lower standards, and so they create formal criteria and methods for validating them. Realtors and Certified Public Accountants are the obvious examples. Now new technology is bringing the same market pressures to journalism. I hope we're ready.40
While voluntary certification in journalistic specialties seems likely to continue, a need might also exist for a broader certification. Many American journalists are generalists, writing news and feature stories on a variety of topics.
The British system might provide a useful model:
The minimum standard for newspaper reportorial employment in the UK is passing of an English language examination and earning of four additional General Certificate of Secondary Education tests.41 The other eighteen options include geography, history, mathematics and science.42 While lower requirements exist, more than 60 percent of new hires are university graduates43-even though, for many years before tape recorders became common, British reporters almost all knew shorthand, and were tested on that skill.
"Most companies will expect you to enter into a two-year training contract," according to the National Council for the Training of Journalists. Taking the training courses first is referred to as pre-entry.44
In the United States a plan of this sort could be adopted:
Upon completion of a college journalism degree, including education and training in both skills and ethics, a graduate could be made a provisional member of some yet-to-be created organization or an existing one, such as the Society of Professional Journalists. After satisfactory completion of a year of full-time employment as an editor or reporter in print, broadcasting or Internet news, the new journalist could become a full-fledged member of the organization.
Another option could be successful completion of five years of full-time employment in the field, without the need for a journalism degree. This second option would preserve practical experience as an alternative to classroom-based learning.
Recognition by the Society of Professional Journalists or some similar organization would accomplish Meyer's goal of helping the public to distinguish between hacks and those who perform at a higher level. Obviously, we are a long way from this point at present.
Notes and Citations
1. I remember this as the first firing I ever witnessed.
2. Coke Ellington, "There's Nobody to Fire a Blogger," The American Editor, November-December 2006, p. 29.
3. Lada Adamic, and Natalie Glance, "The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election: Divided They Blog," March 4, 2005, blogpulse, p.1 http://www.blogpulse.com/papers/2005/AdamicGlanceBlogW W.pdf.
4. Ellington, "There's Nobody to Fire a Blogger," p. 29.
5. University of North Carolina Web site, Philip Meyer, http://www.unc.edu/~pmeyer/meyeres.html, p. 1.
6. Ellington, "There's Nobody to Fire a Blogger," p. 31.
7. Philip Meyer, "Certification of Journalists: Necessary for Our Times," Electronic News,Volume 2, Issue 1 January 2008, pp. 2-3.
8. Meyer, "Certification of Journalists," p. 2.
9. Meyer, "Certification of Journalists," p. 4.
10. American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Web site, "Regular Membership," http://www.aicpa.org/ About+the+AICPA/Membership+Information/Regular+Membe hip.htm, p. 1.
11. American Association of Certified Public Accountants Web site, "The CPA Exam," http://www.aicpa.org/Becoming+ a+CPA/CPA+Candidates+and+Students/The+CPA+Exam.htm, p. 1.
12. American Association of Certified Public Accountants Web site, "The Code of Professional Conduct and Bylaws," http://www.aicpa.org/download/about/Code_of_ConductBylaws.pdf.
13. American Meteorological Society Web site, "AMS Certification Programs," http://www.ametsoc.org/amscert/index.html, pp. 1-2.
14. E-mail from Kelly Savoie to writer, March 10, 2010.
15. National Weather Association Web site, "Broadcast Meteorology Committee and Radio & Television Weathercaster Seal of Approval Qualifications and Procedures" http://www.nwas.org/seal/seal-proc-updated.pdf, pp. 1-2.
16. National Association of Realtors Web site, "National Association of Realtors Fact Sheet," http://www.realtor.org/ press_room/public_affairs/narfactsheet, p. 1.
17. National Association of Realtors Web site, "Quadrennial Realtor Ethics Training-Online Course," http://www.realtor.org/mempolweb.nsf/pages/quadrennialethi strainingcourse, p. 1.
18. Bob Frause and Jean S. Frankel, "What Role Should PRSA Play in Establishing Practice Standards for the Public Relations Profession?" PRSA Strategic Dialogue Background Paper, October 2008, p. 3.
19. Universal Accreditation Board Web site, "Frequently Asked Questions- Accreditation," http://www.praccreditation.org/becomeAPR/FAQ-Accreditation.html, pp. 1-2.
20. Public Relations Society of America Web site, "Accredited in Public Relations (APR)," http://www.prsa.org/PD/apr p. 3.
21. Universal Accreditation Board Web site, "What's in the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations?" http://www.praccreditation.org/becomeAPR/FAQ-Examination.html.
22. Kent R. Middleton, William E. Lee and Bill F. Chamberlin. The Law of Public Communication. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003. p. 343.
23. Meyer, "Certification of Journalists," p. 4.
24. Ellington, "There's Nobody to Fire a Blogger," p. 29.
25. USDA Graduate School Web site, "Editorial Practices," http://www.grad.usda.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=83&Itemid=205, p. 1.
26. USDA Graduate School Web site, "About Us," http://graduateschool.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=35&Itemid=281.
27. Ellington, "There's Nobody to Fire a Blogger," p. 29.
28. Society of Professional Journalists "Code of Ethics," http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp, p. 1.
29. Society of Professional Journalists "History of the Society," http://www.spj.org/spjhistory.asp, pp. 1-3.
30. Society of Professional Journalists "Code of Ethics," http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp, p. 1.
31. Center for the Study of Ethics at Illinois Institute of Technology, "Sigma Delta Chi's New Code of Ethics" http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/coe/sigma.delta.chi.new.html, p. 1.
32. Center for the Study of Ethics at Illinois Institute of Technology, "Code of Ethics Sigma Delta Chi," http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/coe/soc.pro.journalists.1973.html, pp. 1, 3.
33. Susan Paterno, "The Lying Game," American Journalism Review, May 1997, http://www.ajr.org/article_printable.asp?id=598, p. 3.
34. William L Rivers and Cleve Mathews. Ethics for the Media. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. p. 232.
35. Center for the Study of Ethics at Illinois Institute of Technology, "Society of Professional Journalists-Code of Ethics," http://ethics.iit.edu/codes/coe/ soc.pro.journalists.1987.html, pp. 2-3.
36. Paterno, "The Lying Game," p. 1.
37. Seth Faison, "3 Dismissals Reported at NBC News," The New York Times, March 20, 1993. http://query.nytimes. com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE6D61F3 FF933A15750C0A965958260, p. 1.
38. Society of Professional Journalists "Code of Ethics," http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
39. Society of Professional Journalists "Code of Ethics," http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
40. Meyer, "Certification of Journalists," p. 4.
41. National Council for the Training of Journalists Web site, "Careers Advice," http://www.nctj.com/career.php, p. 2.
42. BBC Web site, "GCSE Bitesize," http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize, p. 1.
43. National Council for the Training of Journalists Web site, "Careers Advice," http://www.nctj.com/career.php, p. 2.
44. National Council for the Training of Journalists Web site, "Careers Advice," http://www.nctj.com/career.php, p. 2.