Fourth estate must be distinguished from ‘citizen journalist’ brigade – Dr Simon Longstaff and Peter Greste
There may have been times once, when the quality of journalism mattered relatively little; quieter, more settled times, when a vigorous, independent, media committed to their readers and audiences, wasn’t really necessary. For better or worse, those are not the times we find ourselves in.
We are living through a global pandemic. Our changing climate threatens our prosperity, health and security. The world’s balance of economic and military power is shifting. We are told that the drums of war are beating. Technological advances are redefining how we live and, perhaps, who we are.
As citizens living in a democracy, we have not only the liberty, but also the responsibility to engage in informed debates about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities that this presents all of us.
That is why we need the best that journalism has to offer. At its finest, it is based on a principled commitment to searching out and publishing truth, without fear or favour. It is grounded in a fidelity to the facts, and a commitment to balanced, sober, reporting and analysis of the world around us. It is committed to serving the public rather than any political agenda, invoking the concept of the fourth estate — the interrogation of power for the public good — not just as a self-serving slogan but as a true vocation.
This is not to say that great journalism has to be boring, sanctimonious or worthy. It merely needs to be worthwhile, crafted with care for the audience it hopes to serve. It is that commitment — a seriousness of purpose that need not be serious in tone — that distinguishes the true journalist from the blogger, vlogger, influencer, rumour merchant … and all the rest who wish to claim the journalists’ legitimacy, without taking on any of their obligations.
We believe the time has come to draw attention to those journalists who maintain the highest standards of their profession. As with other fields, those standards need to be defined and upheld not by governments or powerful media proprietors, but by those who are at the top of their game and willing to be held accountable by their peers. This is the way it is with engineers, doctors and accountants. So it should be with journalists.
Against this background, we are proposing a new voluntary scheme of certification for journalists. Our proposed approach follows the example of other professions. Just as any suitably qualified person can practise as a doctor, only those willing to make additional commitments can become Fellows in one of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, Physicians, or GPs. It helps maintain standards among its members and becomes a mark of quality for anyone seeking medical help.
Our aim is not to restrict who can work as a journalist. The internet has lowered the barriers to entry to the point where anyone with a keyboard and an attitude can launch their own publication. We merely want to recognise those who voluntarily adopt the highest standards of ethics, competence and leadership within their profession. Beyond that, we hope that the public will look for their work. And if that becomes the norm, then publishers will seek out these journalists, knowing that they will bring a special kind of credibility to their mastheads.
But why would anyone go to the trouble of seeking certification and the additional obligations that this will entail? Some will find it effortless — as they already meet all the criteria. Others will see it as an opportunity for growth — and will value the ongoing support of like-minded members of the profession. If enough journalists make this choice, then it will demonstrate to our wider society the value of reciprocating with shield laws and other protections for the freedoms journalists need to serve the public interest. The Media Freedom Act proposed by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom can do that.
As things stand, we know what could be done. We have a clear vision for how such a voluntary certification scheme would work and improve the “ethical infrastructure”’ of Australian society for the benefit of all.
On this World Press Freedom Day, we believe the time is right to start a conversation among our peers, our readers and audiences, about adopting such a scheme. After all, press freedom means nothing if it is not recognised and valued by those it is ultimately meant to serve.
Dr Simon Longstaff is the executive director of The Ethics Centre. He is also Adjunct Professor, AGSM at the UNSW Business School and Honorary Professor at ANU’s School of Philosophy.
Professor Peter Greste is Director and spokesperson of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom. He is also UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication at UQ.
Read in full here.