Oh dear. A long pensive piece about the nature of the press reduced to sound bite. That because I don’t regard journalism as “research” or, as my initial concern, “academic research” I somehow don’t think pieces should be checked.

Funny in one sense, in that it reveals a capacity for gross simplification of the sort that would otherwise excite howls of rage if a journo did it. But key, too, since it goes to the heart of the journalistic dilemma.

That is hinted at by the excellent comment on the last piece on this topic from fishwife. I don’t quite agree with their distinction between the WORDS “journalist” and “reporter” …but I get and agree with the principle.

There should be a complete separation of story and story teller. Whether that actually makes for an unbiased press is another issue. But the idea is sound.

However. The essence of this approach contains an implication at odds with a second demand by many:that the reporter “research” their subject. Why?

Research leads to opinion-forming. Leads, in effect, to the destruction of the very neutrality otherwise prized. Because it changes the relationship between author and story.

Difficult. And please note that what is not being argued here is FOR some general ignorance on part of writer. When it comes to writing…before writing…i’d expect the humblest journo to have done their legwork. In spades.

I just don’t think they should be doing it to academic standard.

Because, too, there is a second, mostly unstated presumption behind that argument. Sarah Brown highlighted it recently, complaining of a confected story she was dragged into.

The writer had a set of RSPCA claims about snakes as pets. These they put to Sarah seeking counter-claim. The story is pure confection: one body puts a view, another rejects it. The form, structure, nature of such pieces is well known.

Sarah has a very valid point.

There’s a case for saying the piece shouldn’t be run. Or the journo should have researched the topic and simply delivered an (academic) verdict on the issue.

Hmmm. But see what we did there? We turned two conflicting views into researched monolithic opinion. Maybe the RIGHT opinion. But along the way, we discarded conflict. We effectively elided two genuinely opposed views into a single conclusion.

That’s the danger. The BIG danger here.

Journalism isn’t academic research – and that’s both its strength and weakness.

It’s 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 ever really live comfortably with it?

jane xx


7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    “The writer had a set of RSPCA claims about snakes as pets. These they put to Sarah seeking counter-claim.”

    No, that never happened. A BBC reporter put up an article on their news website that was essentially a regurgitated press release. I wrote in to complain.

    • 2

      janefae said,

      OK…bad example…re-read what you originally posted, which i understood to have gone down as here – and which i fed back to you. Perhaps too many words in the pot, so my “readback” may have gone unnoticed.

      However, the principle stands: there are stories that are essentially nul stories. They start with nothing…and the nothing gets turned into a bit of matter and a bit of anti-matter, which together tsill cancel out to nothing.

      In the story you referenced, was there ANY balancing quote, or was it pure regurgitation?

      • 3

        It was pure regurgitation, AKA churnalism.

        The tragedy was, there was a real story there. The story was how the RSPCA had been partially infiltrated by ARA types with an agenda of banning pet ownership in the UK, and how they were trying to influence the civil servants responsible for administration of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act into starting with common harmless pet reptile species.

        All he had to do was ask “what’s the motivation behind doing this, and why now?” and get a little bit creative with Google (it was all over reptile keeper forums, could have found people to interview and everything). When I (politely) explained the background to the story in my complaint, he responded incredibly defensively, suggesting that investigative journalism shouldn’t be expected to be part of his job description.

      • 4

        This, by the way, is why I will never donate to, or buy from RSPCA charity shops, and I encourage others to do likewise.

  2. 5

    Fickle word: “academic”. Similarly “balanced”. “Research in spades” needs to have real understanding of the issues as digested by academics. A good example is climate change. Maybe 97% of academics in the field share consensus on what is at stake and how it has arisen. Some news organisations, however, seem to think “balance” means giving equal weight to proponents and deniers/skeptics in their “journalism”. That is not an academic position, though maybe well-researched, is not the real balance, and in trying to separate story from teller, misrepresents the academic position in favour of either vested interests or populist views. Who are they “reporting”, then? The academics, the scope of stances, or populist expectation? Words are so interesting …

    The position is not so very different on trans issues.

  3. 6

    The Fishwife said,

    Jane, I’m inclined to believe that over the years ‘Balance’ has insidiously inserted itself into reporting, as a replacement for impartially. In some cases, it’s used to negate the right to reply, the article having been ‘stood up’ by a countervailing view, ignoring any middle ground, but perhaps that’s for another day. I don’t want to start ranting on about ‘slant’.

    What I do want to do is to talk about ‘research’ and what we are to understand you mean by the word. I suspect that somewhere within you there is a disliking for the word when applied to reporting the news. Some would say that one could never justify using the term in relationship to what reporters do. The O.E.D. seems to have gone AWOL, so I’ll rely on Merriam-Webster online.

    Definition of RESEARCH
    1 : careful or diligent search

    2 : studious inquiry or examination; especially : investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws

    3 : the collecting of information about a particular subject

    Once we look at how the dictionary treats the word, I’d posit that that definitions one and three have real relevance to every part of reporting the news. Definition two would certainly cover the sort of work that goes into a solid ‘background’ piece. It’s the degree of work required that will vary between stories reported. I’m going to borrow a management term and call this ‘due diligence’, though I’d imagine it’s already common parlance in every editors’ office.

    This due diligence is should be at the heart of responsible reportage. The acquiring of all the information available also must have a prerequisite of being able to understand the data you’ve gathered. There’s not a lot of point in reporting on new advances in science if you don’t understand enough to know whether the data you’ve assembled are true, especially if they come from a single source. Only with with understanding can you start to relabel that data as facts. Yes, I know reporters, well, clinging to my own definition, journalists, are not polymaths, that’s why we have crime, defence, science and other specialist journalists.

    I’d also argue that doing due diligence (research) and understanding the data that’s been gathered, can and should lead to responsible decisions regarding whether the story should published or spiked.

    • 7

      janefae said,

      Yes, again: mostly agreed. We have some slight differences in terms of terminology. I don’t draw the reporter/journo distinction you do…but i do agree wholly with the principle that you set out.

      Here, i find myself mostly in agreement again. I believe that journalists SHOULD be carrying out what is covered by (1.) and (3.) of your look-up. My beef was mostly with (2.), which i tend to regard as much more the provenance of “academic research” and, as i am using language, i have tended to elide “research” into “academic research”.

      I absolutely believe that journalists/reporters/whatever SHOULD be doing careful and diligent searching in order to collect and collate info about a subject. I just don’t tend to call that “research”. Nor do i agree that they shoudl carry out “studious inquiry”, insofar as that feels to be much more academic.

      jane xx

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