How to filter real journalists from advocacy media outlets

In true journalism, opinion or commentary must be clearly labelled as such, and blending hard news with commentary is insidious

ANTIGONISH, N.S. Oct. 21, 2016/ Troy Media/ – A United Nations decision to bar a Canadian news organization from next month’s Conference of the Parties (COP22) makes it clear it’s time journalism becomes a self-regulating profession – much like doctors or lawyers.

The Rebel, a right-leaning platform created by Ezra Levant, was denied access to the conference in Morocco because “advocacy media outlets do not qualify for accreditation.”

The Rebel Media’s journalistic credentials have been questioned before. Earlier this year, the Alberta government banned The Rebel’s correspondents from press briefings in the legislature.

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), representing reporters across Canada, demanded the province reinstate The Rebel. The ban was subsequently lifted.

Independent journalism is indispensable. Journalists must strive for objectivity and seek out dissenting voices. News gathering must be held to ethical standards. Journalism is as much how you tell a story as what you cover.

It follows, then, that not every blogger or basement commentator is a journalist.

In true journalism, opinion or commentary must be clearly labelled as such. And blending hard news with commentary is insidious.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the movement towards ‘independent’ or ‘grassroots’ media was in full swing. Activists attacked conventional media as being ‘corporate,’ suggesting it offered propaganda more than news. To fight the concentration of media ownership, these activists decided they would report in a fashion that was independent, grassroots and anti-corporate.

But many of these independent ‘reporters’ thought they could march in demonstrations wearing their activist hats and then suddenly don their reporter caps and report the news objectively. The result was left-slanted reports, mostly commentary, in place of what they criticized. This anti-corporate rhetoric emboldened some activists to take out their frustrations on career reporters. I saw physical attacks on mainstream news reporters’ equipment and vehicles during my undergraduate years. The attacks reflected a profound lack of understanding of the ethics and training behind real reporting.

This isn’t to suggest that The Rebel or other alternative media don’t gather legitimate news stories and give voice to important issues. But media is too important to work without checks and balances. Journalists and news organizations must be held accountable for violating standards and ethics.

The public can complain to a public editor or ombudsperson – if the news organization has one – or to a press council, if one exists in a given province. But these institutions are arguably more about public relations than enforcement of professional standards. Many also believe public editors or ombudspersons tend to reflexively defend the organizations they represent.

However, a self-regulating profession can set ethical standards and enforce them up to the point of stripping someone of their credentials to practise that profession.

Canadian journalists generally oppose government licensing or losing control over their work, or a homogenization of media. Some fear that professionalization could lead to formal requirements for obtaining a journalism degree.

But surely proper training – a formal education in critical thinking, from a liberal arts education, for example – would be good for journalists and society. A profession should never fear more education.

Becoming a self-regulating profession ensures that journalists are responsible – and reassures the public.

Some journalists want to be activists and tell us how to think. A self-regulating profession could help deal with this kind of media bias.

As traditional media confronts the explosion of digital, multimedia journalism, this conversation is important. Journalism is struggling to find a sustainable business model and this could help.

But before we decide how to save an independent media, we need to decide who is the media. Self-regulation will help us decide.

Joseph Quesnel is a Nova Scotia-based policy analyst and commentator.

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