The Canadian Association of Journalists on certification

Alexandra Bosanac talks to recently-named CAJ president Hugo Rodrigues about one of the journalism's prickliest issues: certification. Will the CAJ support, or trash the Payette report and its suggestions? Rodrigues isn’t sure. More on why, plus the CAJ’s failing membership, and more.

Alexandra Bosanac talks to recently-named CAJ president Hugo Rodrigues about one of the journalism's prickliest issues: certification. Will the CAJ support, or trash the Payette report and its suggestions? Rodrigues isn’t sure. More on why, plus the CAJ’s failing membership, and more.

Alexandra Bosanac: What are some of the issues the CAJ faces?

Hugo Rodrigues: Similar to other membership-based organizations for journalists, we're still trying to recapture membership that we've been losing over the past few years. The reasons are complex. There are fewer journalists working in salaried, staffed positions across the country but it doesn't mean there are fewer journalists. A lot of former salaried employees have found other writing jobs, either in journalism or outside of journalism. But there aren't as many people working in newsrooms as there was three years ago.

We're not the only organization that's trying to figure out how we can still offer those journalists things that they value, like training, conferences, professional development, advocacy, while also ensuring that we're speaking about the issues that they care about. It’s been a consistent challenge to us. At the same time, there are a lot of freelance and independent journalists out there, and we are also trying to meet their needs, which is a continually evolving challenge.

AB: What about the certification of journalists?

HR: That's a fun one. And I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. Certification, obviously, is connected to the Payette report in Quebec. It's definitely pushing journalists in Quebec to have that conversation and it should be pushing the rest of us to have that conversation as well. As of yet, as a national organization, we don't have an opinion on the bigger question of professionalization of journalists. That said, it's something that our Montreal chapter is eager to do some work on and eager to take a position on.

We've asked the Montreal chapter, in addition to Elizabeth Thompson, who's on our national board as well as Dale Bass who's on our national board, to put some recommendations before the national board on what we should do.

AB: Will Quebec's decision be a harbinger for the rest of Canada?

HR: I think what I'd like it to be is an opportunity for us as national organization to have the conversation and do our best to come up with a position. In the past the topic has been covered at our conferences and we certainly have had the conversations amongst ourselves. I think our board as a whole represents the different opinions that that are on the subject. We definitely have some on our board who are in favour of professionalization of journalism and we have some people on our board who are vehemently against the professionalization of journalism. And I think that reflects the opinions that are out there amongst all journalists.

It's a complex issue. If you ask someone who's working as a journalist what they think a journalist is, you're not going to get the same answer. So, if you ask them whether or not that person should be a part of a regulated profession then you're going to get a whole bunch of different answers to that. And then if you ask them who should regulate that profession, you're also going to get a bunch of different answers to that. So, my hope and the board's hope in asking for this committee to come back to us is that we'll get a briefing on what the issues and the perspectives are.

In our Montreal chapter, the bulk of them are freelancers or working for smaller publications. The goal I had in asking for that was information and recommendation and from that we could have a converstaion, we could consult our members, we could go through that process and we might arrive at a decision. Up to now, we've only had pieces of the conversation but never really tackled the question.

AB: Do you personally support the idea?

HR: I haven't made up my mind to be honest. I think I have a good understanding of what the concern is on both sides and I have a good understanding on some of the proposals that have been put forth as to what professionalizing of journalism might look like.

AB: Can you speak some more to that? What might the professionalization of journalism look like according to the proposals you've received?

HR: One of the ideas, and I can't say conclusively when I first heard it, and there is an element of this in the Payette report with regards to the Federation of Professional Journalists in Quebec is that membership in an association would define your status as a journalist, or as not a journalist. So, if you're a member of an association like the PJFQ or like the CAJ, or the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, or the Radio Television News Director Association of Canada or the Professional Writer's Association of Canada  — and I probably missed one or two — then that that membership qualifies you as a professional journalist.

And then the heavy-lifting there would be self-regulation, in that each of these different associations would have to provide a definition of what a journalist is and of, first of all, what journalism is and what a journalist is, and then through that try and define who can call themselves a journalist based on what they do. That could be beneficial to all of these different associations because everyone who wants to practice journalism would then have to be a member of one of our organizations.

AB: Which would solve your membership issue.

HR: It would. But at the same time, self-regulation becoming the arbiter of who is and who isn't places some demands on us. Speaking to the CAJ: we don't have the resources to meet right now. We don't have the resources to go through our existing membership role and using a criteria — that we don't have, because it hasn't been given to us — be able to say 'okay, you are a journalist, you are not.' We don't have the ability to do that right now. And without a clearer picture of how we might gain that ability, we're not there, we're not ready.

So that's the other side of 'oh yes, but we'd gain hundreds more members.' And I don't want the question of professionalization for us to be a question that we answer based on how many new members we might get. I think it needs to be answered based on how does it help a journalist do their job, regardless if they're a member of the CAJ, or the FJPQ or any of the other organizations that are out there. Does having the accreditation of being a professional journalist help me in my job? Does it help me do my job better than how I do it today without the accreditation? Those are the questions that we need to consider.

AB: Who benefits most from professionalization? The journalist or the public?

HR: I think it's a two-part question with a two-part answer. It's going to help the public, for those people who base whether they have confidence in wha they're watching, in what they're reading, or what they're listening to based on whether or not that person has some letters after their name. And for journalists, it's the same thing.

I get the whole public confidence thing. Myself personally, and again  this reflects the diversity of opinion that's out there is on this topic, I think what we publish and what we broadcast and the quality of that content does far more for establishing public confidence in what we do as journalists. Our behaviour inside and outside the public spotlight does a lot more to determine the public's confidence in our content than professional designation at this point. Whether professional designation helps us do our job better and bring these benefits, well, now we're getting into the territory where I haven't made up my own mind on where I sit.

AB: Would members have to pay a fee to receive and then keep their certificate?

HR: It depends on the model that ends up being proposed and or accepted. The reality of professionalization in our country and in our province is that regulation is a provincial matter so each province would have its own regulation for professional certification like they do for dentists and doctors and accountants and nurses and engineers, that whole list of regulated professions that exist today. And then, some of these professional organizations have national bodies.

AB: Wouldn't provincial regulation create a conflict of interest?

HR: That's one of the biggest concerns with the professionalization of journalism. A government, any government is going to be deciding who is and who isn't a journalist. Not that i think it's an immediate concern in this country but it provides the potential for a government to not certify someone who wants to be a journalist based on the fact that it doesn't agree with what that person has written or broadcast or published.

AB: How did this issue come about?

HR: The ability to easily put content online wasn't the birth of this particular conversation, but I think it has accelerated it to the point where it's led to things like the Payette report. There have been court decisions in New Brunswick about bloggers in court rooms and whether bloggers in courtrooms are journalists. Some of them are and some of them aren't. It depends on what they're writing and how they're writing it and do they practice their writing with the same sort of considerations that a working journalists does. Even among working journalists, that's not an easy question to answer.

AB: What would disciplinary action look like? The revocation of a certificate? How would you stop people from writing on the web, anyway?

HR: That's another part of what makes this a complex issue. If we look to the existing regulated professions they have all those elements. They're either given a set of standards or they're given the ability to develop their own set of standards to define who's a member of the profession and who isn't and they're also given the disciplinary power to enforce as well as consider complaints. And sometimes that works really well and sometimes it doesn't. Journalists have spent a lot of  time uncovering how professional organizations do a very poor job of protecting the public from members of the profession who have abused their office or their power.

As an education reporter, I get the Ontario College of Teachers magazine and like probably everyone else that gets that magazine, I flip to the blue pages at the back that tell you all the disciplinary panel hearings and all the decisions they came to. That could be part of what that ends up looking like for journalists if we go down that road. But I don't know how close we might be to that in Quebec. I don't know if it's just a lot of noise, I don't know if it's something that could actually be seriously put into place.

Every other province and every other journalism organization across the country is watching very carefully to see what's happening. Because if it does or doesn't go towards professionalization in Quebec, then that is going to draw a response from other provinces. Either to follow Quebec, if it professionalizes journalism, or to not. For us at the CAJ as a national organization, the best thing we can do on this question right now for our members and for journalists is to stay on top of what's going on and when it's appropriate, react or put out what we determine based on the consultation we do with our members and based on the discussions we have at the board level to be the best position to take on this issue. We're months away from that at this point so it's difficult to try and predict what an end point or end of a chapter point on this issue will be.

AB: This is creating a slew of new problems. Is this something that's best left alone?

HR: When we struck the committee at the board level there were certainly opinions saying, best to let sleeping dogs lie or not disrupt the hornet's nest or not open up this can of worms. But I think to be fair to our Montreal chapter and the members that they're representing that we need to consider, it's time to have the conversation. Not that we've actively avoided it, it's just that we haven't actively engaged it. If this is an opportunity to do so, rather than to just tell the Montreal chapter that that's just an issue for Quebec and that we're not going to engage because of what it might entail and all the question marks and all the we don't know what it will look like type answers, I think it's an opportunity where we could have a constructive discussion and come away with a position rather than simply avoid the question.