1 Be Credible

Peter Bobkowski

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of professional licensing.
  • Explain the role of credibility in journalism and communications professions.
  • Link the professional credibility of communication professionals to the credibility of their sources.

Licensing and the Professions

To understand better the reasons for why you are reading this book, let’s think about professional licenses.

In many fields, individuals are required to obtain licenses before they can begin employment in those fields. The way this works is that a license-granting entity like a state agency or a professional association sets a standard for what it takes to become a professional in a particular field. Through a licensing process, this entity then ensures that only people who meet this standard are allowed to practice in that profession. The standard often consists of specialized education and the successful completion of an exam.

For instance, when people want to become a lawyer, they go to law school and then take a bar exam. If they pass it, they are admitted to the bar by a bar association (that is, the licensing entity for the legal profession), which means that they are licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. Similarly, when people want to become a physician, they go to medical school and then take a series of licensing exams. If they pass these, they are certified as physicians by a medical board. If people want to be a barber, they go to barber school and then take a barber licensing exam. If they pass it, they are licensed to practice barbering. Pilots, architects, public school teachers, accountants, engineers, real estate agents, and many other professionals all need licenses before they can legally practice their chosen professions.

The license is an indicator of trust. By granting a license, the licensing entity vouches that the license holders are competent in their field, and that the public can trust these people to perform the skills they are trained to perform. A licensed attorney can be trusted to represent clients, a certified physician can be trusted to diagnose and treat patients, and a licensed barber can be trusted to cut clients’ hair.

Conversely, when a professional does something that breaks this trust — when a lawyer acts in a way contrary to the accepted standards for lawyerly behavior, for example — the license can be taken away. The revoking or nonrenewal of a license can have very real consequences for an individual: They can no longer practice in the profession they trained for and may need to find a new way to support themselves and their family.

Licensing in Communications Professions

So what about getting a license to become a communications professional like a journalist, broadcaster, public relations practitioner, advertiser, or marketer? What are the license-granting organizations for individuals pursuing these professions? What specialized education and exams are required before one is certified to practice in one of these fields?

All of these are trick questions because in the United States, communications professionals do not get certified or licensed. There is no barrier to entering these professions. Nothing stops you from printing a bunch of business cards right now and identifying yourself as a public relations practitioner or as a broadcaster. If you do identify yourself as a member of these professions, you are not breaking any laws, nor are you usurping the power of any organizations that would designate you as a licensed professional through a licensing process.

That sounds pretty great, right? If you choose to continue pursuing a career in communications, you won’t have to study for a fancy exam to get certified as a journalist or a PR practitioner. Is there a downside to this? Well, think about the public: a license signifies to the public (that is, potential clients), that they can trust a plumber, aesthetician, or pilot. In the case of the communications professions, what signifies to the public that they can trust a journalist, PR practitioner, or advertising professional?

The answer is, credibility. Credibility is the license to practice communication.

Credible professional communicators will have an audience or clients who trust the information they convey, enabling them to make a living in this profession. Do you know anyone who only turns on the news only at a certain time because that’s when a specific news anchor or weather forecaster is on TV? (If you grew up in Kansas City, you might be thinking of people who religiously tune in to see Gary Lezak’s weather forecast.) TV audiences place deep trust in their favorite news personalities to present the news or weather to them. As you pursue a communications profession, it’s that level of credibility — the credibility that favorite news anchors and weather forecasters exude — that you want to strive to achieve.

Guidance on Professional (and Credible) Conduct

Credible communicators demonstrate through their work that they meet the qualifications and standards of their profession. But how do they know what the professional standards are? Although the professional organizations for communicators do not issue licenses like bar associations and medical boards, these organizations do articulate the standards that professional communicators are expected to observe. So if you are looking for guidance on how to build your credibility, look up the professional organization that corresponds to your communications career.

If you are thinking about print or online journalism, magazine journalism, or broadcast journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is your professional organization. In its Code of Ethics, SPJ charges professional journalists to “seek truth and report it,” and to “be accountable and transparent” in order to build trust with the public and establish a credible reputation. Are you leaning more toward strategic communications, like advertising? If so, then the American Advertising Federation (AAF) is your professional organization. Its Institute for Advertising Ethics follows the same logic on credibility as the SPJ. It prizes “a common objective of truth and high ethical standards” as one of its eight pillars of practice. If you plan to specialize in public relations, though, you will follow the code of ethics set by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). PRSA  mandates that professionals “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

When Credible Professionals Behave Incredibly

Without licenses, how are communications professionals held accountable for their professional conduct? Communicators’ professional organizations charge their members with being accountable to themselves and to one another in upholding their credibility. SPJ, for example, dictates that journalists quickly correct their own inaccuracies and “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” As a result, a professional communicator who lacks credibility may have trouble keeping employed in her chosen field.

There are many examples of journalists and other professional communicators being, in effect, expelled from their fields after losing credibility in the eyes of their peers and the public. Stephen Glass’s peers, for instance, ousted him from journalism after they discovered that Glass falsified an article, “Hack Heaven,” for the magazine The New Republic (TNR). As The New York Times reported, Glass’s peers at TNR trusted him in part because he was a hard-working former fact-checker for the magazine. But since his fall from grace 20 years ago, he has been unable to work as a journalist or a lawyer (he got a law degree after leaving TNR). All told, Glass had completely fabricated not only “Hack Heaven” but 27 of the 41 articles he wrote for TNR, as well as articles published in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones, as Vanity Fair reported. Glass’s lost credibility was the subject of countless news articles, a movie (“Shattered Glass”), and his own book.

Stephen Glass broke his colleagues’ and his readers’ trust when he fabricated information. The codes of conduct of all professional organizations for communicators agree that making stuff up violates professional standards. But telling the truth and not fabricating information is a bare minimum as far as professional standards go. This book focuses on a more nuanced set of professional standards, that is, the standards relating to the sources that professional communicators use.

You Are Only as Credible as Your Sources

The credibility of communications practitioners are only as solid as the sources they use. Much of the work that journalists, public relations practitioners, advertisers, and marketers do consists of taking information from sources, packaging it, and presenting it to an audience. In order to produce credible work, communications professionals must be experts at finding and using credible sources.

Adam Penenberg is the journalist who first uncovered Glass’s fabrications in “Hack Heaven.” The research process that led Penenberg to determine that Glass was making up stuff illustrates the importance of examining and questioning sources in journalism and in other communication professions. At the time, Penenberg was an editor for Forbes Digital Tool (now Forbes.com), and considered himself to be pretty knowledgeable about the emerging field of digital business. When he read Glass’s article about a 15-year-old computer hacker successfully extorting “money, porn magazines and a sports car” from an Internet company called Jukt Micronics, Penenberg seriously doubted his own research and reporting skills.

Glass’s article seemed like a story Penenberg should have found and written about. He set out to find more information about it and began by pursuing the sources that Glass included in his article. However, after conducting several internet searches, reviewing government records, and interviewing several hackers, Penenberg could not verify any of the information that Glass wrote about.

Penenberg eventually forced Glass to admit that the article was complete fiction. By detailing his research methodology in posts for Forbes Digital Tool, Penenberg illustrated his own credibility and adherence to professional standards, while cementing Glass’s reputation as a hack journalist.

The process that Penenberg used to uncover Glass’s lies is the same process that this book and your coursework will teach you. To become proficient in this process, you will learn where and how to access sources of information, and how to evaluate whether the sources you are looking at are credible enough for you to use in your work. You are reading this book because communication professionals must be, first and foremost, experts at using information sources because their credibility — their license to practice communication — depends on it.

Peer Tutorial: Credibility

In this video, Katie Andrew and Grace Levens (JOUR 302, spring 2019) discuss why credibility is important for journalists and other communication practitioners.

A Practitioner’s View

Andy Hyland

KU Journalism, B.S. 2005, M.S. 2017

Assistant Director of Strategic Communications, Office of Public Affairs, University of Kansas

I have worked both as a news reporter and as a public relations professional at a large research university. In both professions, I’ve always felt that credibility was the most important element to maintain.

If your audiences don’t trust you as a source, you’ve lost everything you’re trying to do.

As a news reporter, I used to ask people if they’d ever had a news article written about them. For those that had, they could usually identify one element that was flat incorrect or missed the mark somehow. People will think, “If they miss these details about me, then how can I know the rest of this stuff is accurate?”

As a public relations professional, I work on many messages that are tailored to present the organization in its best possible light. However, if we were to simply invent facts from thin air, it would quickly be discovered and reporters (and the general public) would look elsewhere to get the information they want.

In many ways, the work of a public relations professional is similar to that of a journalist. Statements need to be vetted and verified before disseminated publicly. The wrong information at the wrong time can cause real reputational damage to an institution and its bottom line. This is particularly true in a crisis, where information is flowing fast and furious.

The ability to sort good and useful information from the bad is a critical skill.

Activity 1: This Is How Credibility Crashes and Burns

Recent history is littered with examples of journalists who have undermined their own credibility. Here’s a partial list:

  • Jayson Blair
  • Monica Crowley
  • Kevin Deutsch
  • Sabrina Erdely
  • Jonah Lehrer
  • Brian Williams

Public relations practitioners, advertisers, and marketers also regularly lose their credibility, but those individuals or agencies usually are not named. What we see instead are brands and companies losing their credibility because the communications professionals who work for them were not producing credible work. Here’s a partial list of companies whose credibility took a hit recently:

  • Pepsi-Kendall Jenner “tone deaf” advertisement
  • Red Bull will “give you wings” lawsuit
  • Volkswagen sued for cheating emissions tests

Research the actions and circumstances that led to these individuals’ and companies’ loss of credibility. What have been the professional implications of these actions? What was the role of sources in these individuals’ and companies’ problems with credibility?

Activity 2: Can I Get a License?

Do professional organizations for communications professionals engage in licensing? Examine the website of one of the professional communications organizations listed below, and determine whether this organization engages in the licensing or certification of its members. If it does issue licenses or certifications, how do these credentials differ from the licenses issued by organizations such as the bar association or the barber licensing board?

License

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Be Credible by Peter Bobkowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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