Journalism Is Not a Noble Profession
But what a world that would be.
There is a concept in our society that some professions are held to a higher standard of ethics than others.
I think of them as the “noble” professions.
Medicine is the most obvious noble profession, involving a literal oath to "do no harm." I think that this generally holds up in reality; doctors aren't perfect, but generally speaking they hold to a high ethical standard.
Law is another noble profession. Although I’m not personally a fan of lawyers or litigation, I'll not deny that lawyers have a professional code of ethics that they can usually be relied upon to follow. Attorney-client privilege in particular is an ethical stand I support.
Both of the above professions are regulated by a professional society, and individual practitioners can be removed from their profession for violations of their ethical duties (not just their professional ones).
Other professions are sometimes thought of as “noble” as well - firefighters, police, and soldiers come to mind - all professions in which one risks one’s own safety to protect others.
How Journalism is Seen
In my experience, journalism is often thought of as a noble profession, especially by students and the young. This is only anecdata, so take it with what grains of salt you will, but when I was in college there was a sense that being a journalist was a career that made the world a better place.
In other words, some students pursued careers with high expected lifetime earnings - they were clearly after money. Other students pursued their passions in art or literature or history.
But there were also students who pursued degrees - and through them, careers - in an attempt to make the world a better place. Cancer research, activism, charity work, Doctors without Borders, etc. - these careers claimed altruism as motivation, rather than money, power, or pursuit of one’s own passion. And it is this category, I found, that journalism students tended to classify themselves.
Journalism could be a Noble Profession
Now - in theory - journalism could be a noble profession. It has the makings of one.
After all, isn’t it noble to speak truth to power? To seek out and destroy corruption and villainy by exposing it to the harsh light of day?
Don’t The People have a right to know?
So what’s the problem? Journalists are clearly doing vital work, functioning as the fourth estate, checking the power of governments and corporations in service to the public.
The problem is that for every journalist doing that vital work, for every investigation uncovering crime and corruption, we get thousands of pages of biased reporting and performative outrage and clickbait listicles and yellow journalism.
In order for a profession to be noble, the whole profession has to be noble. Every member must be held to an ethical standard.
Not only that, but there are issues of distribution here too: the median member of a noble profession ought to uphold the high ethical standards of the profession. There will always be outliers, but the average doctor does their best to do no harm, and the average lawyer keeps attorney-client privilege.
The average journalist, on the other hand - mean or median, I suspect - does not hold to any professional ethical standard. Individuals may have their own principles, and they should be commended for them, but individuals are not a profession.
In other words, while there are journalists that achieve impeccable ethical and moral standards, they are the exception, not the rule.
The rule, for journalists, is that the only standard they are held to is whatever won’t get them sued for libel or plagiarism.
This permits all kinds of shenanigans, from clickbait to yellow journalism to political bias to basically anything that can’t be proved to be an outright lie.
At its best, journalism is about the pursuit and publication of truth in a way that acts as a check on the power of the powerful.
At the median, journalism is entertainment wrapped in a veneer of factual reporting.
At its worst, journalism is clickbait and lies and bullshit, likely pursuing its own political ends in the service of the powerful.
The reality of the field of journalism is that journalists work for companies, and those companies are acting in such a way as to maximize shareholder value. This isn’t bad by default - it’s how our economy works - but it means that a journalist’s first responsibility is to drive business, not tell the truth.
Think about how U.S. presidential races are reported on like sports competitions, complete with graphics and leaderboards and commentary - is that really how we should discuss how to choose someone for arguably the most powerful office in the world?
In reality, there is nothing inherently noble about journalism or journalists. They should in general be treated as any other author of popular fiction; entertaining, perhaps, but with no responsibility or commitment to relate events in an unbiased, factual manner.
What would a world in which journalism was a noble profession look like?
Imagine journalists must take an oath:
"First, publish nothing that you know to be untrue."
Imagine that there was a professional society of journalists and one had to have a license to practice; that provably failing to uphold their oath saw them banned from publishing ever again.
Imagine a further oath, to separate journalists from pundits:
"Second, report what happened without regard to personal opinion or bias."
Imagine journalists were people who told the truth.
What kind of world would that be?
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In the Meantime
In the meantime, I recommend reading
if you want a great primer on how to navigate the journalism we’ve got.