The meaning of “professional” has changed drastically over time. It used to solely designate someone who had completed specialized training and been accepted into an organized group of others who pursue the same calling. These days, it often just means “someone who gets paid for what they do,” or “someone who works in an office.”
But even the “old” definition actually misses the mark, because it’s focused on the individual and not on society. So even using a strict designation, we can have “profession creep” so that all manner of occupations can become professions simply by adding a tough training course and a sanctioning body. For instance, there’s actually a group of “communications professionals.” I don’t dispute their skill, but I question the label.
Because, if you look at the role professionals play in society, a different definition comes to light:
A profession is someone to whom society grants special powers in return for special service that requires special skill.
This is a public definition of the word.
For instance, we give the police the power to carry weapons, use force, and detain us in return for their vital service protecting the peace. We allow medical doctors to wield almost God-like power over our well-being, in return for their service in healing the sick. We give judges power to remove our freedoms in return for their service in deciding disputes according to the law. All these uses of “professional” are rooted in the needs and perspective of the public, as opposed to the individual.
Using this litmus test, many occupations lose their “professional” status because they either lack the special powers or the special service aspect.
I have been interested lately in this as it relates to Journalism. I have written before about the differences between Journalism and news gathering. Lately I have thought about it more, as I have been involved in developing a new “citizen journalist” project that I’ll be writing about more in upcoming article.
There are professional Journalists, by the public definition: we grant them special powers (secrecy and protection of sources) in return for their specialized skill in illuminating the truth. But in a world where Journalism is being replaced by newsgathering, the perceived need for Journalism is waning. People can get their news from nonprofessionals, and don’t focus as individuals on whether they want Journalism or not.
This seems to me to be a problem that we need to address on a public, societal level. Though individuals may not perceive a personal need for it, a free society demands that Journalism be present and be robust.
People these days pooh-pooh professional training for Journalists, because so many amateurs are getting into the act — or what looks like the act. (I am one of them.)
But there come times when we need more than news (what happened) and need Journalism (deeper truth, investigated and uncovered). If there is no profession, I fear that there won’t be this Journalism around when we need it.