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We regulate doctors to protect the public from harm – why not journalists?

We regulate doctors to protect the public from harm – why not journalists?

Should journalists be licensed? The Conversation Canada commissioned two articles to argue for and against the idea. Read the counterpoint of this argument to get the full picture.

In the post-truth haze that has enveloped public discourse, a free press is more crucial than ever in educating the public and holding leaders to account. Reliable, accurate news is an essential public good, while false or misleading news can foment confusion and distrust.

In this regard, the practice of journalism has much in common with the practice of medicine. The best medical practice can enhance the public’s health, while careless treatment can lead to real harms. One of these professions is tightly regulated. The other is practised without any formal systems of oversight.

Doctors are granted a licence to practise medicine by a medical board, or a college of physicians. Licensure typically requires proof of completion of medical school, as well as passing a series of examinations, and payment of an annual fee. Many physicians are additionally registered with other professional bodies that require evidence of continuing medical education, to better ensure that practitioners stay current in their fields.

Medical colleges establish clear rules and guidelines about how, in general terms, a physician’s practice should be carried out. Clear policies govern the professional standards that must be met, as well as how investigations and disciplinary actions are to be brought forth in the event of a suspected violation.

Certain types of misconduct — be it a failure to maintain the standards of the profession, disgraceful behaviour, abuse of a position of authority, or other misdeeds — can land a physician before a disciplinary committee with the power to revoke their licence if they are indeed found guilty of malfeasance.

Board serves public and profession alike

Medical boards serve the public, providing mechanisms through which patients can lodge complaints about physicians. They also serve physicians, who use credentialing to demonstrate good standing.

Importantly, medical boards and colleges do not represent an additional layer of government bureaucracy. Rather, they are formed by groups of doctors, patients and members of the public.

The potential parallels with journalism are easy to spot. The media fulfils an essential role in public life. Anyone writing and publishing news stories is given a potentially powerful voice. While our hope is that journalists will use their voice to reliably inform the public, we must also recognize their potential to lead people astray.

Not long ago, accurate, fact-based and ground-breaking reporting was valued – think Knowlton Nash, Woodward and Bernstein or the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. Highly respected journalists collected information first-hand, bringing stories to press or to air only after the most stringent of vetting and corroboration.

The upside of the hard work that goes into producing and filing a story included nothing more than a good reputation and a modest pay cheque. Though by no means perfect, reporting was for the most part done with the best of intentions, by those most qualified to do it.

Anyone can now report on a story

Our current media ecosystem presents a far different picture. The internet has given voice to anyone wishing to report on a story, enabling shoddy research based on secondary sources (or even pure fantasy). It has become possible to publish at the push of a button, at any time of day.

The upside now includes an influx of cash from clicks and page views; being provocative may be more profitable than being correct. As a consequence, the lines between news and entertainment are now blurred. Consumers of news are adrift in a sea of stories, left to disambiguate the fake news from the real thing.

This state of affairs constitutes a threat to the public good.

One needs look no further than recent votes in the United States and the United Kingdom to see that elections have serious and far-reaching consequences. While failing to vote may be a dereliction of one’s civic duty, voting while uninformed can be downright dangerous.

This state of affairs — in which a profession has a duty to protect the public but the means to do harm — underscores the need for a journalism licensing body.

Journalistic bona fides

A self-regulating college of journalists could determine what sort of education is needed in order to become licensed. Standards of journalistic practice and norms of professional conduct could be established based on a consensus of expert opinions. Formal processes to investigate malpractice and strip wrongdoers of their credentials could be put in place.

A licence in good standing would be a visible sign of a journalist’s bona fides, akin to the post-nominal “MD” that medical school graduates use.

A college of journalists would in no way infringe upon free speech or freedom of the press, much as a medical board does not preclude patients from seeking treatment from complementary and alternative sources.

In fact, seeking health treatments or news stories outside the mainstream may in many cases be a safe and reasonable thing to do. The difference is that the consumer becomes better informed about their choices, and practitioners can’t as easily claim to provide a service they aren’t qualified to deliver.

Physicians inhabit a unique place of trust in society, conferred at least in part by the recognition that their practice is regulated, and that those operating outside of accepted bounds face consequences.

The ConversationTrust in journalists is no less important, but increasingly scarce these days. While the licensing of journalists may do little to stem the tide of fake news, it might at least make it easier to call it out for what it is.

David Maslove, Queen’s University, Ontario

Daniel Howes

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:46

You make an excellent argument David. The importance of the Forth Estate in the separation of powers that is necessary for a democracy has gotten lost.

Oversight of journalists has always been looked at with reluctance, for fear that the licensing or oversight might be corrupted, with freedom of the press and freedom of expression suppressed by one of the other three powers. A professional body of peers with public input is an excellent solution.

We need to go farther than this though if the press is ever going to return to it’s important role in our democracy. The media is the only separated power that is unfunded. Consider how much of our taxes go toward the funding of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of power while the media has traditionally funded itself on ad revenue. Over time, journalism started to orient itself to how it is payed – as entertainment. They are now in the business of telling us what we want to hear.

It is time for journalism to be centrally funded so that we can separate its role in our democracy as truth teller and informer from its role as entertainer.

Daniel Howes

Fred Moffat

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:47

I am no fan of the media, but the idea of the administrative state having regulatory power of the kind proposed is supremely dangerous and poisonous, a dagger pointing straight at the heart of a liberal democratic state. This is totalitarianism suggestive of a nanny state and as such, risks a throw-back to fascism and communism, and is completely out of order.

The only remedy is true free speech otherwise unimpeded, eschewing libel and other criminal forms of expression.

This is playing with fire.


Fred Moffat

Moffat’s argument badly misconstrues the idea of self-regulation. The state would no more regulate journalists than it does doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. The crucial distinction is that while the act of regulation may be state mandated, the regulation itself is governed by a group of peers, and not the state itself. I agree wholeheartedly that a system in which the government decides who can and cannot practice journalism constitutes a dangerous threat to democracy. But this notion strays dramatically from the analogy with the medical profession that formed the basis of the argument for regulating journalists. It is the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario that regulates medical practice in the province, an organization of physicians and citizens that is completely at arms length from the government, and in no way accountable to it.

It might be worth asking physicians, as well as the public at large, how they feel about the way in which medical practice is regulated before deriding it as a “supremely dangerous and poisonous” system imposed by a totalitarian nanny state.

David Maslove

Fred Moffat

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:48

Understood, but only barely. Freedom of speech, once lost, is nearly impossible to restore, as historical experience has proven, time and again. The capacity of an entrenched entitled bureaucracy to purloin the individual’s freedom of expression is almost limitless. It is worth repeating yet again that once you start down that road, it is extremely difficult to reverse course. The only remedy for free speech is much more free speech. To believe otherwise is a fool’s errand and the height of folly.


Fred Moffat

Fred Moffat

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:48

Who would regulate the regulators, and what safeguards would there be against interference from or censorship by the government and the administrative state?

I can only note, yet again, that the only possible remedy for free speech is simply more free speech. No intercession from the administrative state! There is no other option, and God knows many have sought high and low to find it, to no avail. Slander, libel and criminal expression excepted, democratic societies cannot afford to abridge or otherwise limit freedom of expression. The law protects this, one of the most basic and fundamental of human rights, to the advantage of all citizens. To do otherwise is to relive the terrible history and suffer the dire consequences of its abrogation.

Fred Moffat

M Newhouse

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 15:49

The comments above apply even more to media comments about medical advances and paramedical issues that make questionable claimes regarding diagnostics and therapeutics.
It has long been my view that many issues like the “disease-causing” urea formaldehyde insulation debacle (everything from cancer and Auto-immune diseases to birth defects) 30 years ago that was blown out of proportion by the media and has still not been officially corrected by provincial and federal health ministries. Indeed that nonsense led to numerous court cases and ceased from a scientific point of view only about 10 years after it began when the epidemiological evidence overwhelmingly showed that the formaldehyde-related health concerns related to use of plywood in home construction, broadloom carpets etc were so much press-amplified hyperbole and utter nonsense!
At that time it was my impression that as part of their education, journalists should be educated and have reasonable credentials in human biology and at least a basic education in epidemiology and biostatistics without which they should not report on medical issues.
Sincerely, Michael Newhouse Meds 58/9

M Newhouse

A far better response than compromising freedom of speech. A journalist or commentator venturing into such fundamental issues which go directly to how we comport and govern ourselves should take on and carefully assemble and digest the necessary homework before proceeding to the next step.

Ideally this would be undertaken with humility and respect for lessons painfully learned from past experience, and for the most part internalized by most thoughtful observers, writers and individuals . Freedom of speech properly exercised is always the best course, and is best left alone. Keep the administrative state and the regulators far away from the public discourse, at all costs!


Fred Moffat

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