A New Twist on Old Question: Who Can Be a Journalist?

By: Danny Paskin Back in the early 1990s, when I was a journalism student in Brazil, I had a classmate who was already a rising star in the most-watched nightly newscast in the country. The network all but forced her to return to school and get her journalism degree, so that she could perform her duties full time and grow professionally within the station.

Most of my classmates and I were just undergrads trying to figure out what an inverted pyramid was. She was already a respected journalist, known to millions across the country. Yet, we sat in the same classroom, learning.

That image, strange as it was, was quite common, since Brazilian law had for long required journalists to have a journalism degree in order to practice, much like doctors or lawyers.

Or did require.

On June 18, 2009, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that journalists no longer need a diploma to work in the newsroom. The decision marked the end of a seven-year court battle and another chapter in a storied practice that journalists cling to, despite its roots in martial law and military rule.

It may have been the first time that a country?s supreme court has ruled not on what journalism can or cannot do, but rather, who can be a journalist. It addresses the perennial question of what ?freedom of speech and of the press? truly means. While most countries - including Brazil - have some version of that staple of American democracy on their own constitution, very seldom have debates involved the question of ?who? can be part of the press.

After all, despite historical cases such as 1957's Roth v. United States, 1964's New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and 1971's New York Times Co. v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the right granted by the First Amendment extends to the right to call yourself a journalist at will.

And, while the discussion of the role of journalism education has been around since as early as the 1930s, this new debate has arrived just in time, when online journalism, podcasting, Wikipedia and celebrity sites such as TMZ and PerezHilton.com are growing by the minute.

The verdict from the Brazilian Supreme Court asserts, even in a subtle way, that everyone in that country has not only the right to say and hear what they want, but also to become part of the press, with or without university training. And that?s where most Brazilian journalists have a problem, and why they?ve swarmed the streets of Rio de Janeiro and other cities throughout the country to protest the court?s decision.

On one hand, the changing world of journalism ? the technology, the economy ? may explain the need to throw open the doors of the profession to as many people as possible, making journalism in Brazil more democratic. The more journalists there are, the more news citizens will receive.

But that is exactly what scares many in Brazil right now. Some are concerned that opening the doors too much lowers the standards in the profession, and it'll bring in unskilled labor. For current journalists in Brazil, the Supreme Court decision could also mean lower salaries ? the supply and demand logic.

Those in favor of the verdict contend that a journalism degree will not make those with diploma better professionals than those who didn?t major in the field.

Brazilian Supreme Court Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes, who delivered the majority decision in the 8-to-1 vote, contends the pursuit of journalism has close ties to freedom of speech and the press, and anyone that wants to do it should have the right to. For Mendes, ?there was no reason to believe the diploma requirement to be the most proper way to stop any abuse in the exercise of the profession.?

Brazilian Attorney General Antonio Fernando de Souza agreed, saying that ?journalism is a multidisciplinary activity and many news and news pieces suffer because they?re produced by someone specialized in being a journalist? instead of someone with a degree in political science or ecology, for example.

Chief Justice Mendes went a step further, comparing the profession of journalist to that of a cook ? something that caused quite a stir among members of the Brazilian media. For Mendes, the inherent rights granted by freedom of speech and of the press shouldn?t be restricted by choice of college major.

Opponents, however, contend that a diploma guarantees not only that news people have learned to respect the history of the profession - especially its local heritage ? but also trained to avoid mistakes that would significantly hurt the population.

After all, if the diploma requirement made it challenging to become a journalist before, it was far worse 40 years ago. Back then, Brazil was under the same "red scare" cloud that darkened the U.S. Under the guise of combating communism in the country, the military launched a coup on March 31, 1964 that would endure until May 8, 1985.

During that time, the military government issued 17 laws changing the constitution of the country. Among them, Institutional Act Number Five, commonly known as AI-5, written in December 1968 which enacted, among other things, prior restraint of the media.

The act led to Decree 972, in 1969, which stated that journalists could write and report only if they possessed ?a higher education diploma in journalism, official or recognized by the Department of Education.? Active journalists were now required to go to journalism school, and have an official registration with the Department of Labor to perform their duties.

From that moment on, Brazilians had to spend at least four years in a university, before they were allowed in a newsroom.

The law was seen as an attempt to limit who could be part of the press. Philosophers, activists, thinkers in general, couldn?t be journalists anymore, unless they went back to school. Accomplished and respected journalists, from newspaper staples to famous nightly news TV reporters in their 30s, 40s or 50s had to return to the classroom or give up the profession entirely.

Then, something odd happened: over the years, instead of repudiating the law, journalists in Brazil embraced it. While the decision brought at first the ire of professionals, over time, it gained their support.

It wasn't because journalists became passive but, rather, because journalism universities changed; not only were students receiving the proper tools to be effective professionals ? how to write, report, copy edit properly. But they also learned how to think as journalists during a dictatorship period. Professors taught journalists how to work around the censors in the newsrooms and write what they saw fit despite AI-5, just as singers and composers in the country did at the time.

Since then, the number of journalism programs in universities around Brazil skyrocketed. From a handful in the 1960s, the number grew to 470 as of 2009, graduating an average of 12,000 new journalists ever year ? a huge amount in Brazilian higher education standards.

With history at their backs, many journalists have started to fret about the court?s recent decision to revoke the diploma requirement for journalists.

Writing for the Brazilian magazine Epoca, Columnist Paulo Moreira Leite declared that the goal of journalism education ? and the reason it should be a requirement ? is to make journalists more accurate. ?There are many and recent examples that showcase how the bad exercise of journalism helps create misconceptions, consolidates lies and distortions that society may take decades to fix,? Leite wrote.

Brazilian National Federation of Journalists President Sergio Murillo de Andrade went a step further, declaring that the decision opened to door for ?illiterates to register as journalists.?

Edson Spenthof, president of the National Society of Journalism Professors, wrote in the Federal University of Goias? Web site, ?The criteria to decide whether a diploma should or not be required is not, as the Supreme Court justices stated, the clear and absolute ability to avoid mistakes and damage society because no degree can do that. Proof of that are the numerous medical, legal and engineering mistakes we hear about.?

Although journalism is considered as essential to citizens of dictatorship-and censorship-scarred Brazil as it is to the U.S. and other countries, the Supreme Court case has shown that free speech is not static, and may never be. Outcome notwithstanding, the case has fine-tuned the mere definition of the profession and of free speech in the country, and may serve as an example to many others that rely on the always-changing journalism practice.

My famous college classmate, by the way, did eventually graduate, and went on to become a foreign correspondent. Not that the diploma has made much of a difference for her, other than being in legal professional status. One of her Twitter entries, written the day after the Supreme Court?s decision, reads, ?And I haven?t even picked up my diploma yet.?


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