Sunday, May 30, 2010

Licensing journalists could happen in...


Michigan Senator Bruce Patterson has introduced such a bill, which already has gathered media attention inside and outside the state.

And, not surprisingly, it's generating lots of conversation on the blogosphere.

The most interesting part of the bill is Section 8, which I have posted in full here:


21 Sec. 801. As used in this article:
22 (a) "Media" means any electronic or written medium,
23 including, but not limited to, newspapers, television, radio, and
24 internet.
25 (b) "Reporter" means an individual engaging in any of the
26 following activities over the media:
27 (i) Writes a story that is published in a newspaper or on an
1 internet website.
2 (ii) Writes or reads a story broadcast on the radio.
3 (iii) Acts as the reporter for a story broadcast on television
4 or on an internet website.
5 (iv) Writes an editorial with or without a byline that is
6 published in a newspaper or on an internet website.
7 (v) Provides an opinion or commentary piece, with or without
8 a byline, that is broadcast on the radio, television, or
9 internet.
10 Sec. 803. There is created a board of Michigan registered
11 reporters.
12 Sec. 805. (1) The board may issue a registration to an
13 individual submitting a completed application accompanied by the
14 appropriate registration fee. The application shall demonstrate
15 eligibility for registration under the requirements described in
16 this section.
17 (2) In order to qualify, an applicant shall comply with the
18 following:
19 (a) Be of good moral character and demonstrate, by a signed
20 statement, knowledge of any acceptable industrywide ethics
21 standards acceptable to the board.
22 (b) Demonstrate any of the following in the form of a resume
23 or other format acceptable to the department:
24 (i) Possession of a degree in journalism or other degree
25 substantially equivalent to such a degree, as determined by the
26 department.
27 (ii) Not less than 3 years' experience as a reporter or any
1 other relevant background information.
2 (iii) Awards or recognition related to being a reporter.
3 (iv) Not fewer than 3 writing samples.
4 (v) Beginning 2 years after the effective date of the
5 amendatory act that added this article, at least 1 letter of
6 recommendation from an individual actively engaged as a
7 registered reporter.
8 (c) Pay the application fee and submit the appropriate
9 registration fee.
10 Sec. 807. (1) An applicant for registration under this
11 article shall submit a registration fee of $10.00.
12 (2) A registration under this article shall be issued by the
13 board for a term of 2 years.
14 Sec. 809. A person shall not use the term "Michigan
15 registered reporter" unless he or she is registered under this
16 article. However, a person is not required to become registered
17 under this article to be employed as, or use, the generic label
18 or title of reporter, broadcaster, member of the media, or other
19 similar term.

Okay, now let's dissect the pieces that I think are most important:

1. A board of Michigan registered reporters shall be created. I cannot see any qualified reporter agreeing to serve on such a politically established body. The cries of selling out (or worse) already can be heard. And if these board members are appointed by some governmental agency, the professional integrity of those journalists will (and should) be called into question.

2. An applicant shall be of good moral character with knowledge of applicable codes of ethics. Morals and ethics cannot be equated. Overly simplified, one is a personal set of beliefs, while the other is a professional set of responsible behaviors. Moreover, who (I'm presuming it will be this board referenced above) will set the standards for morality?

3. The applicant must have a degree in journalism or a substantial equivalent. Does this mean that student journalists cannot be licensed? What are the implications if they are not? What are substantial equivalent degrees?

4. The applicant must have three years professional experience. Does that mean only in Michigan? And would work done as a student journalist (through an internship or freelance opportunities) be applicable to this three years of experience?

5. A $10.00 registration fee is suggested, but Sen. Patterson never suggests where this money will go or what its purpose is. Moreover, the check would be written to what agency?

The idea of licensing journalists was discussed in a panel session that I moderated at the 2009 Broadcast Education Association national convention. I noted on this blog following that session that licensing of journalists was tossed aside by the panelists -- with the primary reason being the involvement of some government entity that could have a chilling effect on journalism.

However, a certification process generated both positive and negative responses. I call your attention to three paragraphs of my 2009 post -- and ask you to especially pay attention to the final sentence (and I recognize and apologize for the typo: "than" of course should be "then"):

The argument against certification can be broken down into a few manageable statements: who or what would be responsible for it? The market already ensures that certification isn't needed. An emphasis on media literacy would assist in the public in becoming even more critical consumers than it already is. Free speech, expression and the press in some form would be violated.

The argument for also can be broken down into a couple of manageable statements: Certification of other professions (i.e. the medical and legal communities) gives those who have it a credibility and ability to practice what they do. Are bloggers journalists? (If not, then why are standards being applied to them?)

There should be more to say about this process, and at least two of the panelists argued that if the professional and education communities do not hold this conversation now -- and come to a concrete resolution -- than at some point the government will step in and make it happen.

"The government will step in and make it happen." Now, just 13 months after that convention, such a move is happening.

Do I think Sen. Patterson's bill will become law? No. Do I want it to? Absolutely not. But let's acknowledge that he could strike a chord with other politicians in other states, where such a bill could become law.

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