Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Journalism and Protected Communications

Via The Right Coast (Via Instapundit)

Eugene Volokh writes about what should and should not be protected under journalistic “confidentiality.” The editorial brings to mind an interesting disconnect between journalism and the professions Volokh mentions that enjoy confidentiality, namely lawyers and doctors. The other professions mentioned require professional certifications. Passing the bar or the medical boards is wholly different than graduating from college with a journalism degree. While journalists can argue that additional graduate level programs are available, and that matriculation through such programs is as rigorous as law or medical school, that argument obviously fall short; for it is not merely graduates of programs such as one finds at Columbia who enjoy the privilege currently being debated.

Furthermore, journalism suffers from image problems that the medical and legal fields are largely immune to. Perhaps this was most notably addressed recently during the CBS/”Rathergate” Memo fiasco by Andrew Sullivan.

Journalism is not a profession as such. It's a craft. You get better at it by doing it; and there are very few ground rules. By and large, anyone with a mind, a modem, a telephone, and a conscience can be a journalist. The only criterion that matters is that you get stuff right; and if you get stuff wrong (and you will), you correct yourself as soon as possible.

Sullivan is right, of course, though he would be right as well if many other careers were substituted for journalism. That journalism differs so greatly in the required training, testing and continuing education from occupations that affords one the privilege of confidentiality is exactly the problem that journalism now faces, not that all bloggers might enjoy such confidentiality.

Since it is counter productive to a free and open press to remove source confidentiality from journalism it is journalism that must adapt to roles in society where confidentiality is afforded. As such, it is time that journalism becomes a profession, complete with certification exams and continual education. This would serve not only to educate journalists about which sources they can and cannot assure they will protect, but bring the continued improvement that journalism so desperately needs.

Journalists need to seize this unique moment when confidentiality, especially as it relates to the Plame investigation, and peer review, as afforded by the CBS/memo debacle, to push for reforms within their own house that drive their chosen life path from craft to profession; ultimately to a profession best practiced by craftsmen. Not the wine and cheese celebrity peers on the dais type of events that current attempt to serve this function, peer review needs to be conducted continually and methodically in a manner similar to the way doctors review their own actions. It is only then that journalists will be able to both justify their place among the privileged few able to shield people behind the veil of confidentiality and separate themselves from the ever expanding blogosphere.


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