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Monday, July 21, 2008

Churnalism

Over the weekend, I was at a training course, held at a London university (not the one where I did my MA). The training was for "investigative journalism" -- which the first speaker amusingly pointed out was a bit redundent, as in, isn't all journalism inherently investigative?

That speaker, Nick Davies of Flat Earth News-writing sort-of-fame, started his talk by reciting the three golden rules of journalism:

  1. Be objective
  2. Get both sides of the story
  3. Use quotes

If you're nodding your head thinking: "yeah, sounds right" then smack yourself, 'cause you're wrong. Davies pretty well did a verbal smackdown on these three rules, and if you've ever fancied yourself a proper journalist (I once did...) then buy his book and get learnin'. (I'm only part way through it, but he's blowing my mind. It feels great.)

The first rule is the easiest to debunk -- who the hell is ever objective? The simple act of choosing what to write, and who to call and where to place it in your publication is subjective. By all means strive to objectivity, but realise you're going to fail. It's impossible.

But -- as John Pilger later pointed out -- you can pick what side you're on. I write about IT. No one sides with Microsoft. That's okay. They have enough power, and we should side with the less powerful, and lend them our power. (I don't think Pilger had B2B tech titles in mind while he was speaking, but whatever, we can't all be war reporters.)

The second rule I'd often wondered about at university. To start, there're never just two sides to a story. But leaving that aside, there's this idea that if a person (or group or government) says something is bad, then we must find someone to disagree, to bring balance to the story. Davies had a wonderful example for this style of journalism, which I'll paraphrase:

A journalist walks into a room. There are two men standing at two windows, looking out. The journalist asks both about the state of the weather outside. The first says it's sunny and clear. The second says it's raining and dark. The journalist writes it up and slams on a provocative headline about meterological disagreement. No one reading the story has any clue what the weather was.

Only one man was right of the two (unless the weather was seriously messed, which is a story on its own) and even both could have been lying. Why did the journalist trust the opinions of people, when that journo could have looked out the window and found the facts, the truth, about the weather for himself?

Simplistic example, sure. But why do reporters trust the government that there were WMD in Iraq (or in Iran) -- why didn't they go find out? Coulda been useful information to know, that.

A variation of this is if someone -- say, a government whistleblower -- makes a claim about some wrongdoing. Sure, you could get an offical source to deny it, but why? If it's true, why give them the chance to lie to you (and your readers) and to waterdown the truth with their own denial? There are good uses for right to reply, but why give that right to a major corporation or government? It's not like they need the help getting their views across, y'know?

The problem is that the claim has to be true. Right to reply is used so the time-crunched journo has less fear of getting sued when they run a story they haven't had the chance to truly check: "We don't know if the claim is true, but if we let the opposition speak, they're less likely to sue us for defamation." And staying in business has upsides, I admit.

The third rule sort of blew my mind. I'd had this thought rumbling around in my brain for a while, that the use of quotes was kind of unnecessary for many stories. A (shall we say) sister title of the one I work on has a much stricter editor than me (and by 'me', I do mean me). And they use fewer quotes, kind of only when it's really needed or brings something to the story. They don't have a bunch of crappy, PR, wanky quotes filling up their stories, they have facts -- which is exactly what Davies said.

If something is true, why do you need someone to say it as evidence, if that makes sense. It's either true, or it isn't (obviously some stories aren't so fact driven, but that's different and not really hard news.) If the quotes are for colour, yay. If they're for evidence... well, not yay. We often get releases which run along these lines:
"This [subject] is a massive, growing problem to companies, costing them billions a year, if not more," explained CEO of a firm selling a product which relates to [subject].
Well shit, y'all -- he said it, it must be true. Why bother looking into the costs of [subject] on UK business; why would he lie? It's not like he stands to make money if people buy his bullshit... oh, wait, he does.

Indeed, rewriting press releases (and wire stories) is one thing Davies takes on in his book. Davies calls this "churnalism" -- the churning out of stories, because of tight deadlines, etc.

Back in the day, when we had to fill space quickly, we used to call it "crapping stories out" or "shitting on page." (I admit the former phrase has made it's way to my current office...) And that's exactly what it is. So if lame-ass student journos at a shit university in Canada can figure this out, why can't the industry (and readers) see if for what it is?

Really, I've held three 'proper' journalism jobs (so far). The current one at a B2B, the previous one at a weird off-shoot of a German newspaper, and the Gauntlet, the aforementioned student newspaper I worked at during university.

Of those three, which job gave me the time and freedom to actually follow a beat and get to know who I was writing about? And which one insisted on fact-checking and subediting and having at least two eyes on every story before it went out? And which was fully written by journalists, not by PRs or wire agencies? Which one let me be a 'proper' journalist?

The answer is really no surprise. B2B titles don't care about 'truth' in stories -- accuracy yes, but then how often do we take Reuters and PR at face value, as tho they never get it wrong or never tell lies (respectively)? The 'German' place was no more than glorified re-writes, so don't expect much there. There was no concern if story was correct -- if it was from Reuters or AP or Dow Jones, it must be true! and if not, it's not our fault! don't sue! -- but if I left a gerund hanging around, there was hell to pay.

But the Gauntlet was a different story. I remember having a conversation during those four years, where the idea came up that we were practicing the best journalism we'd ever get the chance to do, that we'd never have such freedom. Sadly, we were right.

Yeah, we wrote a lot of crap. We were learning. But we cared, and took the time to try to get things right. I remember re-printing pages at 4am because someone (Nat, probably) found a single comma out of place. Perfect grammar, original ideas, breaking news -- these were all something we took pride in, often to a fanatical level. We were believers. And holy fuck -- those long, unpaid/poorly paid hours were some of the best, most fun times of my life, even still.

And sure, I could go back and read and re-read stories that go online at work, to make them perfect. I should, it's my job. But there comes a point where I've got to just get stuff up and move on, or work doesn't get done and hits don't get counted and ads don't get served. Don't get me wrong: I like my job. I get to do a lot of what I want, and they even funded my little foray into investigative journalism -- which wasn't cheap -- and I'm not being positive just because my boss probably still reads this and I don't want to get in trouble.

But how much of this 'proper' journalism can I push (and should I push) at a business publication? There's only one way to find out...

I'm not saying I want to try to turn a tech B2B website into a shining beacon of journa-tasticness to take on the Guardian and inspire wanna-be investigators everywhere. That would be crazy talk. But I'm paid to be a journalist, and I want to be a journalist, so that's what I'm gonna do.

Let's see if I still know how.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Nat said...

Actually the best thing about the Gauntlet was the ability to nap whenever you wanted and no one said boo. I'm starting to appreciate that more as I get older and work "proper" jobs.

Oh, and at a grown-up job it is very unlikely someone will ask you take your top off so they can use it for a cover.

25/7/08

 
Blogger Duke said...

You can always practice 'proper journalism' on a side project, which you can hope to one day turn into a full-time gig...

31/7/08

 

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