Deinstitutionalisation: The new crisis for journalism Part I

1.

As far as the mainstream media is concerned, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the the print media ran out of runway, as the transition-to-digital bluff was called. There is no serious digital business model to speak of for online publishing – the recent round of mass layoffs at Medium only underscoring that even the digital-only ad-supported initiatives are a fool’s errand.

What should be done? For a while now, my view has been the same as Ken Whyte’s — we should do nothing. And that is pretty much the view I expressed at two of the seminars run by the Public Policy Forum as part of their initiative to determine if the decline of the news media is a problem, and if so, what should be done about it. My answers have been: Yes it’s a problem, and there’s not much to be done until the convulsions have ended.

I’ve since changed my mind. Or at least, I’ve come to think about the problem in a different way. I do think the decline of the news media is a serious problem, but along with most people, I’ve tended to think about it in terms of the sheer number of journalists who are working. But a number of recent developments have led me to think that there’s an additional crisis at work, which is the de-institutionalization of journalism. 

Among these developments: The egregious case of the surveillance of journalists by Montreal and SQ police; and the problem of fake news. There are others, but these two cases frame the problem in usefully distinct ways. In this post I’ll discuss just the first one. The stickier problem of Fake News I’ll deal with in a later post.

2.

Journalism has always resisted professionalization. That is, unlike say surgeons or chartered accountants or architects, journalism has resisted creating a guild-style accreditation system or body that would be responsible for setting and maintaining standards and determining who qualifies.

Partly this is cultural. Journalists have long cultivated a sort of working-class vibe and a healthy anti-elitism based on the idea that any smart person with initiative and a bit of brass can be a journalist. But this culture was to a large extent protected by the fact that simply working for a news organisation was about as much accreditation as you need. The barriers to entry for all the major journalism formats — print, TV, radio — were always so high there was little to worry about in the way of fly-by-night publishers. A journalist was just someone who worked for a media organisation.

Then came the internet, blogging platforms, social media, smartphones with cameras and video and editing and publishing apps, and suddenly any shmoe on the street has more publication power, in terms of platform diversity and potential audience reach, than the entire New York Times of just 25 years ago. Add to this the cult of the “citizen journalist” and all the hoo-ha about the democratizing power of the internet, and you get serious people seriously claiming that “everyone is a journalist”. (For comparison, try claiming that widespread access to sharp knives makes anyone a surgeon, or the fact that your phone has a spreadsheet app makes you an accountant).

This is the sort of cant that only gets questioned and debunked by a crisis. Thankfully, 2016 provided no shortage of crises.

 

3.

At the end of October, one of the best columnists in Canada, Patrick Lagacé of La Presse, revealed that Montreal police had been spying on him for months, apparently as part of an internal police investigation into a crooked cop. The police went to a justice of the peace and asked for a wiretap on Lagacé’s phone, which they received. I won’t go into the details, they are easily Googleable, but the short of it is this: At some point, the mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, called to complain about Lagacé to the chief of police. The chief of police made some internal inquiries. The police then asked a JP for a wiretap on Lagacé, which they got. At no point was Lagacé or his bosses at La Presse informed about this. Oh, and as it turns out, the Montreal and SQ police have been spying on a bunch of other journalists for a few years now

This is outrageous, and the fact that no one in the chain — Mayor, police chief, JP — has resigned or been disciplined tells you a lot about the threshold for scandal in Quebec.

But one person who did understand how bad it is is the premier, Philippe Couillard. Almost immediately after the scandal broke, he announced a number of immediate changes to how requests for the surveillance of journalists would be handled. In particular, he announced that journalists would now receive the same level of protection from unwarranted surveillance that is presently afforded to lawyers, judges, and provincial legislators.

The problem is readily apparent: While lawyer, judge, and provincial legislator are all well-defined categories, “journalist” is not. Remember, we live in a world where anyone can gather, edit, and publish information. Anyone can call themselves a journalist. And in 2009, the Supreme Court more or less concluded that there was no difference between “citizen” and “journalist”, at least as far as new defence against libel was concerned.

Something has to give here. Either everyone in Quebec gets the same protections from surveillance that lawyers, judges, and MLAs get, or no one does, or we figure out some way of accrediting journalists as a distinct class of communicator. I have no idea where things will end up. Maybe the expert panel that Couillard has announced can sort it out.

 

4.

It seems to me then, that there’s been a gap in our thinking about the decline of traditional media. We’ve relied on the actual media organisations to essentially indemnify society against bad practices. They’ve served as guarantors, if not of quality, at least accountability. But in return for that, the mass media received — and was entitled to receive — some sort of special status or treatment.

If this bargain is no longer tenable, then we need to think about ways of reinstating some version of it. That is, we need to think creatively about ways of re-institutionalizing journalism. As I’ll try to show in my next post, the problem of fake news makes solving this all the more pressing.

 

 


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