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TinotopiaLog → Specialization, Journalism, and Professionalism ( 2 Jun 2005)
Thursday 02 June 2005

Specialization, Journalism, and Professionalism

A few days ago, I wrote a fairly amorphous thing about professionalism, mainly to get down some things that had occurred to me as a prelude for more specific rants.

The thing that initially got me thinking about this was the rise of professional town planning (as opposed to such planning being an offshoot of architecture or engineering). Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, though, you’ll have noticed that a lot of people have been complaining about the failings of ‘professional’ journalism, and that a lot of ‘professional’ journalists have been complaining about ‘guys in pajamas’ horning in on their racket.

Recently, the American Press Institute’s Media Center blog had something to say about this. It’s primarily about the difficulty that the news media seem to have in adapting to changing technology, but the ideas apply more generally, and to just about any fraudulent ‘profession’. I find it quite interesting that they too seem to see ‘professionalism’ as an obstacle here:

[…] putting the personal against the professional helps shine a light on one of the great mysteries of our time — why professional media people are so completely ignoring the technologies and concepts that are driving the revolution.

The answer is likely that the great strength — and great weakness — of any profession is specialization. As a class, professionals who view themselves as specialists, easily accept the specialization process and the splitting of tasks and missions. The thinking is that task accomplishment is often better and always safer, if handled by multiple specialists than if one person attempts to do everything alone. This is a strength, because the concept is able to safely climb the mountain of quality. But a system that is designed primarily to protect against error is a weakness in that it is expensive and easily institutionalized.


[I]nstitutionalized professionalism cannot tolerate the notion that if technology can eliminate one specialist, what’s to keep it from eliminating everybody. It produces a defensive response, which is really is a dangerous place to be, because it induces occupational paralysis.

Resistence to technology is an interesting topic, too, but this idea of defensive occupational paralysis makes me think more generally of the recent problems at both Newsweek and CBS News.

About a month ago, Newsweek printed a short blurb about alleged ‘Koran desecration’ at Guantanamo Bay, a blurb which it subsequently retracted and apologized for after it turned out that the story was untrue, at the very least as it was presented by Newsweek. This all became big news after deadly anti-American riots erupted in Afghanistan, allegedly as a result of anger occasioned by the article.

Newsweek has taken a lot of heat for this, but their explanation of how it happened actually makes a lot of sense. The story had what subsequently turned out to be fairly ambiguous confirmation from within the Defense Department. Had Newsweek admitted its error and explained the circumstances quickly, I think this event could actually have enhanced the magazine’s reputation.

Instead, though, Newsweek closed ranks and defended the story, retracting it only when their failure to do so began to look silly. They then went back and forth a few times, offering excuses verging on the ‘fake but true’ reasoning we saw from CBS last fall. At this point, I’m not sure what their position is. (On their website, they have now appended a ‘Newsweek press release’ to the original story, but as it is now almost a month old, you have to pay $2.95 to read what are probably the most-discussed 354 words their magazine has ever printed.)

CBS News, for its part, is now experiencing record-low ratings in the aftermath of its particularly ridiculous stunt last fall involving fraudulent documents that attempted to portray President Bush’s National Guard service in a bad light. In that case, CBS stonewalled for weeks in the face of clear evidence that they had, at the very least, been duped.

In both cases, CBS News and Newsweek showed that their loyalty was not to their customers nor to the truth, but to their ‘professional’ employees. True professionals by definition deserve deference: that deference, and the responsibilities that go along with it, are what makes them professionals. I fail to see, however, how such deference to news reporters is in anyone’s interest.

Posted by tino at 11:03 2.06.05
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