Journalism, Professionalization of

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Contemporary mass communication scholars, as well as some journalists themselves, still debate whether journalism is, or even whether it should be, a profession. But certainly, during the past 250 years, journalism in America has evolved toward professional values, from the one-person printing operations of the Colonial period to the division of labor of the antebellum newsroom and the emergence of reporters in the mid-1860s to the more sophisticated understanding of the social role and responsibility of mass media of the early twentieth century.

To qualify as a profession, an occupation should be founded on a body of specialized knowledge over which the professional gains authority through specialized education and training; furthermore, a professional has a large degree of autonomy from outside censure and is regulated by an internal code of ethics and by the sanction of fellow professionals through professional associations. On a moral level, a profession provides society with a service that no others can. These defining characteristics are based on those of classic professions such as medicine and law. Many critics claim that journalism hardly fits them, because of the lack of educational requirements and licensing, among others. These critics also point out that unionization of such journalists as daily newspaper reporters, which is commonplace, limits autonomy in the sense that unionized employees are not free as individuals to set their own work-place rules. Other critics respond that journalists possess the most important professional feature—a higher calling to work fundamentally not for personal pecuniary gain but for public service.

By the 1830s, journalism in the United States had become a full-time occupation and the "professional communicator" developed—someone whose thoughts have no necessary relation to the message. The professionalization of journalism emerged visibly after the U.S. Civil War, with the establishment of professional associations, standards and codes of ethics, and education programs. For example, Cornell University was offering a "certificate of journalism" in 1873, and Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the New York World, endowed Columbia University in 1903 to found a journalism school. The Missouri Press Association was formed in 1876, and it established its own ethical code. Edwin Shuman published perhaps the first comprehensive journalism textbook, Steps into Journalism, in 1894.

Unquestionably, the most evident sign of change toward more professional journalism was the parallel emergence in the late nineteenth century of the ultimate journalistic value: objectivity. Partly in reaction to the sensationalistic excesses and the blunt commercialism of yellow journalism in the 1890s, journalists sought professionalization, and its norm of objectivity, as a way to make their occupation more respectable and socially responsible. The reforming impetus of progressivism also spurred journalists to detach themselves from crass circulation battles and fight for social enlightenment. Michael Schudson, in Discovering the News (1978), argues that professionalism was a way to strive for more objective reporting. According to Dan Schiller (1979), objectivity also helped commercial newspapers legitimate their function as watchdogs of the public good. While allowing journalists to be independent from the self-interests of business and politicians, objectivity has also come under attack for thwarting the autonomy of journalism—a critique attached to professionalism itself. While some envision professionalism as the opposite of bias, others charge professionalism with serving as a method of control by management over reporters and editors (a co-opting of labor unrest) that ultimately standardizes news content and protects the status quo. In this view, Douglas Birkhead (1984) argues that the professionalization of journalism is so opposed to independence in favor of business interests as to be "a perversion of the ideal."

Somewhat paradoxically, other critics of professionalism and objectivity who also follow the "power approach" charge that the autonomy of journalists functions as a profit-and prestige-seeking device, which makes journalists detached from the public and socially irresponsible. They accuse objectivity of downgrading the journalist from critic to mere reporter of facts, a "communication technician." This criticism found voice in the social responsibility theory of the press early in the twentieth century; the theory, best expressed by the Hutchins Commission Report in 1947, holds that there is no freedom apart from responsibility, so a free press should perform a certain service for society and some institution (the government) must make it do so. Attacking objectivity, this theory holds that the public is served not only by facts but by context that can point to conclusions (i.e., interpretation). While journalists had been instrumental in developing a socially responsible press to give credibility to their occupation, most balked at the Hutchins Report because of its hint at governmental censorship and disregard for the prevailing libertarian view of press freedom. (Some consider it a sign of professionalism that journalists have been active in "political agitation" over a free press.) The contemporary product of this theory—public journalism—can also be seen as both a development and a threat to professionalism. If professionals have as their ultimate goal serving and improving society, then public journalism follows quite naturally. But some see it as the opposite of professionalism and objectivity, which they criticize for shielding journalists from true public service. Other critics of professionalism argue that it stifles diversity and even that the "institutionalized mentality" it breeds restricts press freedom.

Finally, the question remains whether journalists see themselves as professionals; several scholars tend to agree that journalists do indeed. Penn Kimball, in the defining article "Journalism: Art, Craft, or Profession?" (1965), claimed journalists are "pros" because of their higher calling, their special role in society, and the need they have for both schools and associations to develop a professional ethic outside of a formal code. While journalism might not be a classic profession in the organizational sense, journalists are found to espouse professional values such as commitment to public service, autonomy, and a sense of "calling." In their germinal study, "Professionalization Among Newsmen" (1964), Jack McLeod and Searle Hawley Jr. concluded that professional journalists gave much importance to objectivity and responsibility in newspapers. Slavko Splichal and Colin Sparks (1994) noted a shared positive attitude toward professionalization (especially as occupational autonomy) in aspiring journalists across twenty-two countries worldwide. Whether this global trend will create a corps of independent-minded, socially responsible, and useful professional journalists, or whether it is an indication of cultural imperialism in the interests of big business, remains open to debate.

See also:Cultural Studies; Culture Industries, Media as; Democracy and the Media; First Amendment and the Media; Functions of the Media; Globalization of Media Industries;Journalism, History of; News Production Theories; Pulitzer, Joseph; Social Change and the Media; Society and the Media.


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Nancy L. Roberts

Giovanna Dell'Orto