Pressing matters

Pensive. That’s probably the best way to describe right now. Thinking about all sorts of things. Inquiring. Questioning. Putting out trailers and seeing what they drag back.

One area of interest – how could it not be – is the nature of this thing that I do: “journalism”. So if I don’t get distracted over the next few days, there is a lot I want to get down about it.

Journalism is definitely problematic. Since Leveson, there have been strenuous calls for it to be “reformed” – which is easy: the calling for bit. And precious few constructive proposals that I can see, to date, for how to reform it.

Sure: tinkering around the edges. A revamped PCC with teeth. But that’s after the event, mostly: and doesn’t address the fundamental. Is journalism, as she exists in early 21st century Britain, turned from slut – which she ever was – into something far darker. Hmmm: predator, I guess, would extend that metaphor aptly.

The essence of journalism

Let’s start with what I think it is about – and therefore what it is not. Someone today posted a comment about journalism, to the effect that a journalist had failed to do their “research” properly. This from someone who I quite respect as an academic researcher.

To which my instant was: huh? What’s research got to do with it. Journalism…”news”…is about presenting “stories”. And yes: let’s pause for the easy jibe there about how we knew it was all made up.

Its not. But the key focus of journalism is to present in short, easy to digest, instant gobbets material that will both entertain (don’t lose sight of that word!) and inform.

Journalists, in that scenario fulfil a bastard role: part court jester, part messenger. Note. I don’t put us up there with the top notchers: the wizards and the grand high anythings. We’re low on the food chain, processing the facts we can grab, quickly, efficiently, into a framework that makes some small sense of everyday events to our readers.

The role of expertise

For a long time I resisted the appellation “journalist”, preferring “writer” instead. To be honest, I still do, but since there are some things I do that are quite clearly journalistic in nature, I can’t wholly deny it. Still, the big question is about the role and function of journalistic “stories” and whether they can ever be held to the same levels of account as, say, academic research.

Oh: I bet some out there would like to demand that. I mean: how DARE someone write about a subject who isn’t absolutely intimate with it. Who hasn’t, well, studied it every which way to the point where she could happily put it forward as their Mastermind specialist topic and score 15 points.

To which I’d say: be careful what you wish for. I was educated in what many would now call a “good school”: was used to the fact that in most subjects, those who taught us also held decent degrees in that topic.

Therefore I was quite shocked, when first my daughter found her way into secondary school, to discover that was exception rather than rule. That actually, teachers followed all manner of protocols and lesson plans such that it was quite possible for someone with but cursory knowledge of a subject to teach it to at least GCSE – sometimes beyond.

Is that, too, shocking? Should we, as society, aim for a world in which only “experts” in a topic were allowed to teach it? Possibly. But that’s not where we are.

Journalism is NOT about providing neat academic discourse on a subject. End of.

Its about going from zero to 90 on a topic in minutes: digesting (skimming!) as I have done, a 200-page document and delivering a 500 word précis of key points from it in half an hour.

The real big issue

That’s the way news works…what, at some level, the public seems to demand. Which really pushes us back to some much bigger questions: just ’cause the public wants it, should they get it?

And if some of those, now, most critical of the press were to put their hand up for an alternative, what would it be? Because from where I am sat, I don’t believe that you can change the essential nature of what news is without near as dammit banning newspapers: requiring every article to be a feature; and that, while some might genuinely welcome it, feels to me like a step too far.

jane xx


13 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Hells Bells said,

    I think the answer has to start with regulation. At the moment the press seems to act with impunity and is caught out very rarely – yet the damage that is caused in its wake is often immense. It’s not just celebrities, it’s ordinary people who are affected for years to come on the basis of misrepresentation or, worse, disinformation. The press has to have far stronger justification for intrusion into people’s lives rather than just a nebulous “public interest”. Once there is a possibility that “bad” behaviour will be really punished, then there are greater incentives not to go down that route.

    I think that then means that there needs to be some level of justification behind what people write. This is not the same as demanding an academic level of research behind every article, but does mean that journalists and editors need to be prepared to stand up what they write, in a court of law if necessary. Existing laws do cover this to some extent, but the route is too expensive and off-putting for mere mortals to consider.

    Journalism is there to inform debate, not to skew it. It should enable wider public discourse of the issues that matter. It should be accountable to the public for its behaviour. The truly shocking thing about Leveson is that the Inquiry is a shaft of light into some truly murky practices. This should not be an unusual occurence. The fact that it is has meant that editors trying to defend poor practice come across as out of touch and arrogant.

    • 2

      janefae said,

      Hmmm…that’s jumping the gun, Hel, partly because this is first post in what i intend as sequence (and you’re getting on to something later in the sequence) and second because i’m trying to flag what is to me quite a fundamental issue, which is what journalism IS…whereas you are moving on already to how to deal with it.

      Yes: i agree with your point about regulation. Glad you recognise that things don’t need to be to an academic standard, although…as we have debated before, i don’t really see the main prob with the press as being invention, so much as story selection, their behaviour in pursuit of a story, and internalised skew through selective use of quotes and selective use of “experts”.

      Run back over some of the nastiest stories of the last few months, and i’m not sure that many would have had legal remedy.

      As for “Journalism is there to inform debate”…hmmm: why? And how do you see the relationship between form of writing and informing? As we have also discussed: often, some of the worst journalism has the perverse effect of disseminating a lot of useful information.

      I think, maybe, as i listen to your answer, i am ihnclined to say i would rather pass on the precise question of what journalism is for, preferring instead to suggest that whatever it does, it should do so respectfully, and with consideration for those in its sights.

      Maybe that is the proper way forward: look at the how rather than the what…

      jane x

      • 3

        Hells Bells said,

        Admitting that you want to pass over this question – the “who says that’s what journalism is” question is answered by US-based research, published on which states “The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.” That’s from journalists…

        If it isn’t that, then you seem to be essentially reducing it to little more than story-telling – and stories can be (and often are) embellished to make them more interesting to the reader.

        Journalism has an essential part to play in ensuring that citizens within a democracy have sufficient information to judge the performance of their elected representatives. When that information is biased or skewed in some way, then peoples’ ability to fairly assess the performance of public figures is damaged. Your assessment seems to be the same?

      • 4

        janefae said,

        @hellsbells Not entirely clear whether we are agreeing or disagreeing. But let’s assume we broadly agree…and also i suspect that we are answering two slightly different questions.

        You are talking about what journalism SHOULD be: i’m talking about what it is. That’s fair as jumping point for difference…also a fairly fair difference between the activist who has a view as to what should be and the reporter who likes to record what is.

        But there is another slight difference…and here i think we can probably have a good sit-down chat at some point. You write:

        “Journalism has an essential part to play in ensuring that citizens within a democracy have sufficient information to judge the performance of their elected representatives.”

        I’d say THAT is problematic, for this reason. You are setting down rules as to what journalism is or should be and what it isn’t.

        Once that is in the bag, you are on much the same page, bizarrely, as Dacre, who has talked about having a register of “proper journalists” and peeps who AREN’T proper ones.

        That is terrifying to freelances such as myself. More than terrifying, because we know what happens in societies that take this view. Somewhere in the works is a body that decides whether your journalist card can be torn up at some point for failing to act “properly” . Great if “improper” is defined the way you’d like it defined…not so great if “improper” gets defined as failing to show sufficient respect to government Ministers…or similar.

        So i’d like to reformulate what you wrote. I think: “citizens within a democracy need to have sufficient information to judge the performance of their elected representatives.”

        That task may be fulfilled by journalism…but journalism is something much wider than that.

        jane xx

      • 5

        Hells Bells said,

        I agree that we don’t need a system of “licensing” journalists – that is a route that simply won’t work, especially with the emergence of social media. With such a system, would people need to be licenced in order to start a blog? Who would issue the licences? Who would revoke them, and on what basis? I view Dacre’s suggestion as a smokescreen – something to say to Lord Justice Leveson as a sop to indicate that he should be seen as taking the Inquiry seriously, when the reality seems to be very different.

        That’s why the key policing of the press probably has to be retrospective, with sufficient deterrents to make people really think before crossing the threshold. The equivalent is our criminal code. We don’t have to get permission to buy knives, but we do have a responsibility to use them wisely – and if we misuse a knife we can find ourselves up before the beak with a suitable punishment. The punishment should be sufficient disincentive to make sure people don’t misuse knives.

        But, while free speech is a right, it comes with responsibilities. These include, for example, a responsibility to protect rather than exploit vulnerable people.

        I think that the “tabloidisation” of the press, seeking out salacious gossip to sell papers, removes such papers from being “newspapers” – more “scandal-sheets”. Newspapers are VAT exempt for a reason – they’re supposed to convey news. Maybe titles like The Sun and its ilk should attract VAT?

        It’s a tricky definition – rather like “what is female” – people seem to know instinctively what it is, but when it comes to some kind of legal or paralegal definition, it becomes almost impossible to describe. As far as I’m concerned, journalism only really has value if it adds information to some kind of public debate – and a footballer’s current squeeze doesn’t really belong in that field.

      • 6

        janefae said,

        Ugh! Yes. A key issue here is that i agree with most of what you say…and the devil resides in your final par, where you say: “journalism only really has value if it adds information to some kind of public debate”.

        And there’s the rub. “Some kind of”. The problem is that the press WOULD claim that questioning the expenditure of £7,400 on trans treatment within the MOD budget is relevant to some kind of public debate.

        And, literally, pedantically, it is – even if most sane folk would jibe at the idea that there is national news in such a piffling amount. Then the problem becomes…and you know its there… how piffling before relevance dwindles to non-existent?


        jane x

        P.S. Though i like the cut of your jib in stressing that the remedy SHOULD be a posteriori. That’s sound.

      • 7

        Hells Bells said,

        Actually, Jane, I don’t have a problem with the fact that £7,440 was spent by the MoD on trans-related “treatments” between April 2009 and December 2011 being in the public domain – it’s public funds. The issue I had with that particular article was more in terms of the tone and the skew (some would say “misrepresentation”) of the facts, especially when compared to the cost to public funds of each outing of a public service employee by the same tabloid! The fact that £7,500 just looks in insanely small figure (especially when compared with the £41,000,000,000 spent by the MoD in 2009/10 alone, or £90 billion spent in the two years covered by the £7,500) should give some indication of the “importance” of the issue.

      • 8

        janefae said,

        Ye-es….although i wonder whether putting that factlet out there is inherently damaging anyway, in a sense similar to identifying the gender status of a convicted crim…which elsewhere, i know, you have stated as irrelevant.

        I guess what we’d both consider a valid story is: the MOD spent £xx million in the last year on the treatment of serving members of the armed forces for mental health issues. Included in that £xx million was blah-di-blah for depressive illness, twiddle-de-dee for suicidal tendencies and, er, £7,500 for gender support..

        What you’ve actually got here is a story analogous to Sarah B’s RSPCA release where the Sun did an FOI and discovered shock! horror! the £7, 500 figure…and just published it without context. Or rather it would have been analogous if was, as it could easily have been, slipped out into public discourse by, say, the Taxpayers’ Alliance. In which case we’re back to square one, in terms of a story which leads on: Critics of government waste today hit out at the spending of £7,500 to support gender re-assignment, while the MOD is unable to fund treatment for cancer (or whatever!).

        I think we both know that there is masses wrong with the way this story is reported…and again, i am laying this out here as much as issue and question and debating point as anything i have any sensible answer to.

        You’re right: the money is public spend, ergo, subject to public debate. But that takes one down a slippery slope that also ends in the outing of the child-bearing trans man.

        Because, within the understood framework of public policy as it is now, public money was spent to bring about a “sex change”…and a large chunk of the public believe that having a child then invalidates the “change”…ergo, the case is valid topic of discourse.

        No matter that the premise underpinning that story is wholly flawed.

        Maybe, in the end, one has to allow that such stories WILL have to be out there, with pro-trans organisations arguing much more openly that the narrative framework is wrong…rather than putting our head down and just crying foul when such stories appear.

        jane xx

  2. 9

    zoebrain said,

    One of my post-grad qualifications is a certificate in “science Communication” – tailoring complex issues for an audience’s understanding. Wittgenstein’s ladder etc.

    (You probably know that concept already, your readers may not, but I’m utterly confident they can find out – this is not about “dumbing down” or being condescending)


    What I object to in some “journalists”, scare quotes intentional, is not that they’re not polymaths, walking encyclopaedias. It’s when they write a story, then they get feedback on factual inaccuracies, then persist in knowingly telling an unambiguous untruth because it’s got better entertainment value.

    This is allied with the concept of a story “too good to check”, a lesser sin, one of wilful indifference and “turning a blind eye” rather than deliberate and knowing mendacity.

    A journalist who makes a good-faith attempt to inform, gets it horribly wrong due to ignorance and lack of adequate research, I can forgive if they get corrective advice, and don’t repeat the writing of rubbish.

    If they continue to write rubbish, knowing it’s rubbish, but not caring because it sells, then they’re not journalists, they’re propagandists.

    • 10

      janefae said,

      Ah. Absolutely one of my bugbears too…and core to the submission i put together for Leveson.

      Basically, journo’s make errors. There is, as you say, some debate about just how much checking SHOULD be done…but no checking is defo a bad thing…and academic research is probably a bit too far.

      However, the real cardinal sin is when a journo is clearly informed of error…error that is easy to check back and substantiate…and they fall into bureaucracy as their excuse.

      The focus for that is stuff about costs of grs. That is now very easily checkable. However, my experience, when telling newsdesks that they got the figure wrong has mostly been either to claim that they need to “follow process” for amending it…or just to take forever to get back.

      The Sun, f’rinstance, taking over three months not to reply on a simple factual inaccuracy.

      So pretty much with you all the way on this one.

      jane xx

    • 11

      janefae said,

      and “propagandists”? Nah…liars…

      jane xx

  3. 12

    Paula TransPanther said,

    Liars indeed.. liars with an agenda to do deliberate harm to the targets of those lies. In this situation it’s a form of hate speech to continue to write lies after being corrected.

  4. 13

    […] also, I repeat, why I asked the very first question. Given what it IS, what I think it must be to fulfil expectations of neutrality…can society […]

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