Posted by: chiarraigrrl | January 25, 2010

Journalists and journalism…

Many years ago, I undertook a journalism major while at university in the States. Very quickly I realised my mistake – journalism students were slightly too “clean” and preppy go-get-em types for me, and I changed my major to theatre studies. The initial disappointment in journalism (or perhaps the people who undertake majors in the subject) has been compounded by more serious grievances of late.

A few years ago, a now-former colleague’s daughter was killed. When the murderer went to trial, the former colleague was positively besieged by the tabloids, calling her and her family on numbers of theirs that were unlisted. She was going through a tremendously difficult time, and all these so-called journalists could think of was to harass her and her family looking for a tearjerker of a story in order to sell a few more papers. Needless to say, this made a tremendously difficult time even worse.

This week, we saw the Mail on Sunday take Mel Schreregardus’s blog and twist it to look like she was complaining that all current male air traffic controllers were “male chauvinist pigs”, without her knowledge or consent to be interviewed. They used 2 sentences of her blog to dismiss the entire team of Air Traffic Controllers as neanderthols, when that clearly wasn’t what Mel intended in her blog.

I also had the misfortune of sitting through an installment of CBS Evening News, broadcast from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. Katie Couric was literally getting in the way of refugees trying to run through to the Dominican Republic to get supplies etc., and was asking people questions in such a way as to get them even more worked up about how they would survive, and what they would do once their very meagre supplies ran out. It was shocking, and most definitely not either representing what was genuinely happening on the ground in Haiti – they weren’t panicking until she started winding them up – or helping in any way.

We had gotten into an interesting discussion the other evening on twitter about the purpose of journalism specifically in emergency situations, and who should be doing the reporting in a crisis. I thought this was a unique opportunity to have another look, as it were. Obviously, there are a number of problems, but the major theme in all three of the above ridiculous situations is that certain publications seem to be less interested in the real story, and more interested in what sells – what will shift papers off the newsracks, or improve ratings on television. Unfortunately, what sells is often what some might call “car-crash” stories – where in spite of themselves, people just can’t help reading what they know to be a) probably less than true and b) sensationalised information. When I was in my journalism courses, it was more of a “calling”, as it were, to find out the truth in the world around us. We were taught that we were to act as the Fourth Estate (the 3 limbs of the U.S. government- executive, legislative, and judicial- had to be held to account by the 4th estate, the news), searching for the unbiased reality of the situation. One of the key elements of this, which our lecturers never let us forget, was that we had to have multiple sources for any story. Obviously, if you’re just covering the local council meeting, all you can really do is take minutes of the meeting, who said what, etc. But if you’re trying to do an article, say, about sexism in a particular workplace, multiple sources are an absolute must. And if someone doesn’t agree to be interviewed – other avenues must be pursued. Surely more than one person has had the experience, if you’re going to go making broad generalisations about members of a particular profession. Local information is also clearly an absolute requirement- in the situation in Haiti, Couric was clearly just looking for what would improve ratings, not what the situation really was on the ground.

Obviously, it would be useful if the reading public didn’t buy these rags that are better for lining a hamster’s cage with than they are for reading, but unfortunately too many people look to them perhaps for a bit of excitement in otherwise dull lives, or because they simplify things. I would hope the press ombudsman would have some role in the situation – at least to attempt to raise the bar a bit, in terms of fact-checking and use of correct amounts of sources (and correctly handling research, as in the case of my former colleague). If they’re publishing an article as opinion, that’s one thing, but to publish/broadcast clearly biased information as “fact” seems to go against everything I was ever taught the industry stood for, and brings down the reputation of the whole industry through the missteps of the few.

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Responses

  1. Very neatly summed up. Raising the bar would benefit society as a whole. It is patronising to assume that the lower social classes cannot comprehend content in intelligently articulated printed media


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