The idea of professionalism

Note: This is part three of the serialization of my term papers. This section of “Journalism education, democracy, and the possibility of a more perfect professionalism” follows directly from this first post in the series.

Eliot Freidson (1994) dates the organization of professions to the post-industrial era, when work became less focused on the performance of tasks, and more on the acquisition and application of specialized knowledge (pp. 95–96). He defines a profession as an occupation so well organized that its members can realistically envisage a career over most of their working years, a career during which they retain a particular occupational identity and continue to practice the same skills no matter in what institution they work. A similar form of organization is to be found in the skilled trade or craft, though the craft cannot claim the same kind of knowledge-based skill as can the profession (p. 101).

Journalism certainly fits this idea of a profession, as opposed to a craft. Aside perhaps from academic researchers, what profession could be said to be more knowledge-based that journalism? While it is true that journalism’s knowledge base is not specialized nor even permanent, journalists must gather, digest and transmit huge amounts of knowledge in the course of their daily working lives. The work of journalists can be more clearly compared to that of researchers (though with a different intended audience) than to that of, say, woodworkers. Information, to coin a phrase, is not wood.

In an earlier book, Freidson (Freidson, 1986) suggested the relationship between professions and the power that they wield. “Professional groups, including scientists and academics, are often represented as the creators and proponents of particular bodies of knowledge that play important roles in shaping both social policy and the institutions of everyday life” (p. ix). This knowledge brings power and responsibility, and as the arbiters of general knowledge—as opposed to the specific knowledge of the professions Freidson mentions by name—this power and responsibility is amplified. Though he is perhaps the leading writer on professionalism (see also Abbott, 1988; Larson, 1977), Freidson does not mention journalists in either of his general books on the topic. Banning (1998) notes that “Discussion of the professionalization of journalism in the literature on professionalism is conspicuous by its absence” (p. 159).

Banning argues that professionalization is not a cluster of attributes, but rather a process, best expressed as a scale. This particular historical study does not even take a stance on whether or not journalism is a profession, but instead traces the changing attitudes of nineteenth and twentieth century journalists toward themselves.

In another examination specifically of journalism professionalism (Soloski, 1989), one researcher offers up a similar definition of professionalism that, on its face, actually seems less applicable to journalism:
For a profession to exist, it must secure control over the cognitive base of the profession. To do this a profession requires (1) that a body of esoteric and fairly stable knowledge about the professional task be mastered by all practitioners, and (2) that the public accepts the professionals as being the only individuals capable of delivering the professional services. (p. 210)

While there are some skills that a journalist needs that seem esoteric (use of editing and page-layout computer software, database manipulation, interviewing skills), the most clearly esoteric are the technical skills, and those are the most volatile. And as for point (2), journalism as a profession seems to have the highest propensity for an “I could do that” reaction from the general public. Laypeople don’t feel that way about surgeons or structural engineers, but many—if not most—people with solid general educations are capable of asking questions and turning the resulting information into a coherent story.


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