Sep 292011

What Defines Professionalism?

There are many people in further and higher education who are struggling to instil into their media production and media studies learners the ethics and attitudes of professionalism. With courses of study that try to reflect the pressures of working life in different parts of the media industry, there is a focus on high-pressure experience, working to deadlines, managing complex projects and taking clear responsibility for the work that is produced and communicated.

Leading courses do as much as they can to emulate a professional business environment, with lots of contact between learners and people who have worked in the media industries and who know the day-to-day pressures of turning around media packages, websites, recordings, interviews, features, reports, and the whole plethora of items that a media business turns-out daily.

There is a good deal of thought around the idea of a professional built-in to our media courses. The idea that graduates will be ready for work and will almost without any transition or reorientation, be able to step into the world of daily deadlines, hierarchies and work-place political positioning, is prevalent.

However, learners are all to often only encouraged to assimilate a view of professionalism that is external to their experience. Professionalism in a course is often managed and signalled by association and accreditation. Does a course have the backing of such-and-such a professional body? Is the professional experience comparable with industry standards set by a group of (usually) men who went to university in the 1970s and 1980s?

But the world is not standing still. The techniques and tools of what it means to be a professional are changing. The first wave of change has been associated with the break-up of the means of production. The introduction of desk-top based media production applications and workstations meant that industry professionalism was no longer defined solely on the basis of your access to scares resources like studios and edit suits. The second wave has been the introduction of more social ways to communicate and discuss what happens when people who have jobs in the media industry do their thing. The rise of the insider-blog that tell the story of how a particular production is put together. The short film on a DVD that maps out what the stages are of a production on a movie in glorious detail. The tweets and messages of newspaper columnists arguing among themselves about the virtues of their work.

All of these open-up the process of media production and shows that it’s not just about having ‘insider-status’ but that being a media professional is about something else, something that is more personal, more focussed on crafting content in a creative, engaging manner, and less likely to be about regressive work-based hierarchies, closed-shops and restrictive working practices. We can assume more and more that the process of producing media is open to scrutiny and observation from the consumers of that media. The media industry is becoming a giant glass box, where all of the innards and workings are available to see. Where the magician is no longer solely behind the curtain pulling their levers and making their impressive noise.

So if things have changed, where does the mode of thinking that we positively associate with professionalism come from? How are individuals enabled and entitled to act with confidence and operate in an increasingly complex, converged and mixed-up media production environment? What are the values of the media professional that we can’t do without? Integrity? Capability? Imagination? Accountability? Deliver-ability?

Can these values be imposed from without? Can they be tested by examination after being learnt by rote? Or are they only capable of being learnt by experience? By being coached and supported in individuals who are asked to react to the world as it is now, not as it was defined in the days when the text-books where conceived?

I hope this is not a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater argument. Instead I think it’s worth discussing and thinking about what we mean by the idea of the media professional and what makes that relevant in an age of ubiquitous computing, social networking and a plentiful supply of the tools of media production? If we strip everything away that isn’t essential to the professional mindset, what are we left with? And if we’ve stripped everything away, do we need to start calling it something else?

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