What makes a journalist?

The Journalists of the Spanish General Workers Union (UGT) have today called for restrictions on the qualifications required to work as a journalist in Spain. Specifically, they want an undergraduate degree in journalism to be a requirement for employment in the field.

According to the union, 35% of working journalists in Spain do not meet this criteria, and their aim is to stamp out this, in their view, illegitimate ‘intrusion’ into the profession. They have also called for an end to the Masters degrees in journalism that are open to graduates of any discipline.

The UGT’s position is problematic for a number of reasons.

The first is that they are defending a qualification, the university degree in journalism, which is a relatively modern invention. Traditionally, journalism wasn’t a profession accessed by studying a university course, rather, it was a trade learned through practical experience on the job. Even when they were graduates, early hacks had backgrounds in literature, history or political science, subjects which gave them many of the skills (research, critical analysis, writing) needed to excel as journalists.

In fact, if anything, we could probably do with broadening the academic background of our journalists rather than narrowing it. Graduates in economics, international relations, and medicine, and who are able to communicate to non-experts, are well-placed to become excellent journalists in their fields. Such a move would be of particular help in science journalism (an area whose many failures have been brilliantly skewered by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science column in the Guardian).

The second issue with the UGT’s proposal is that ‘journalism’ is, and has always been, a slippery concept to define. The union has made a comparison with other professional qualifications, saying:

“Can a journalist work as a lawyer or chemist, to give two examples, just by taking a Masters in Law or Chemistry? The answer can only be no.”

But journalism is not chemistry. While everyone has the right to share information and express their views in writing (however clumsily), not everyone has the right to purchase and mix dangerous chemicals. While the statement released by the union acknowledges the constitutional right of all Spaniards to publish their opinion, it goes on to say that ‘informing’ the public should be restricted to professionals. But, whether you agree with the trend or not, the line between fact, analysis and opinion is increasingly blurred in modern media. Is an article analysing the Euro-zone crisis journalism? Is an interview or cultural review? Is a tweet?

The question of what it means to be a journalist has been further confused in the past decade by the fragmented, democratic structure of modern communications media. Everyone is a potential citizen-journalist these days, and not just as a commentator or critic, but as a person on the ground recording the action as it happens. Not all citizen journalists get paid, but is it would be near-impossible to ban non-journalism graduates for receiving money in exchange for information.¬† If someone gets their hands on snaps of King Juan Carlos shooting an elephant, they’re going to get big money for them, whether they studied journalism or not!

Vocational courses and training in journalism do have a place in our media landscape, even as the profession faces an almost existential challenge posed by new technologies. It’s important that there are journalists who know about media law, online publishing, editorial style guides, etc. But, as I pointed out in my previous post about gender diversity, teams made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives perform better. They have a larger pool of information and expertise to draw on, and when the goal of a profession is to inform the public about a range of issues in an increasingly complex world, that can only be a good thing.