Hubris and journalism

I’ve been catching up with some reading (that “mark all as read” option only kept things at bay for a while).

I started with Alison Gows take on the an event at my Uni last week. Mark Skipworth, executive editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, came in to talk about the tele’s digital transformation. In the process he seems to have strayed off the path in to the ‘journalists are better than bloggers’ debate. His phrase – “No one tells a story like a journalist.”

Alison comments on the general feeling in the room.

Ouch, that’s a poorly-expressed phrase, I thought. Except it wasn’t – it was what he absolutely believed… with his next breath he went on to dismiss the ability of bloggers to provide quality, impartial reportage.
I think it proceeded along in this vein but the muttering around me had actually become more interesting than the fuddled point the speaker was labouring towards. (Which was, I think, that journalists are impartial and quest for the truth.)

A bit of a blinkered view. As Alison concludes,

If you believe only a journalist can tell the story then you’re closing your eyes, ears and mind to the millions of people out there who are telling their own stories

But you’d be forgiven for thinking that, in some quaters at least, journalism really is the about the art of not listening to people.

That was my immediate thought as I read. James Silver’s article on n Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s rude awakening to hate comments on a recent piece. Having recieved over 900 comments, some apparently very hateful, to an article called “Spare me the tears over the white working class” Alibhai-Brown is less that taken with the transparent nature of the web.

“I think editors were initially overcome by the openness of it all,” she says. “But the time has come for them to think about where this is going. There hasn’t even been the beginnings of a proper debate and there really needs to be.”

But one commenter on the story thinks this is a lesson newspapers need to reflect on

I think it may have opened a lot of newspapers’ eyes as to the level of frustration their readers have about some of what passes for journalism in their papers.

It’s a sentiment that echoes a splendid quote in the article from Rod Liddle

“Some readers always thought we were a pack of self-obsessed wankers. Now they have both the confidence and the platform to tell us what they think. And seeing their words ‘published’ on the internet, next to lots of other comments, seems to legitimise what they say and spur them on.”

I find myself agreeing with the sentiment. If your gig is to write stuff to get people spitting out their cornflakes then don’t be surprised if some of you targets spit back.  Don’t get me wrong, hateful stuff is out of order but ultimately you have a choice; Invest in good moderation (time and people), leave it open and let the crowd police itself (a brave waiting game) or close all comments and don’t engage with the audience.

The inconvenient truth is that, unfortunately the last option can’t and won’t stand for long. The door is open and to paraphrase Liddles view, the web puts the commentators and commenters on an equal footing. You have to get that right or you lose the respect of your audience.

All of which added an extra resonance for me to the  kerfuffle that has blown up around criticism of the Press Complaints Commission by the Media Standards trust. The PCC is the newspaper industries (self) regulation body and according to the MST it isn’t fit for purpose.  Martin Moore picthes the report  in broad terms on his blog.

You would be forgiven, as a member of the public, for thinking that the system was geared more towards protecting the interests of the press than the public.

The resulting war of words has already raised some interesting debate, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. But it seems that, in the national press at least, there is a real need to move on from the idea that “no body tells a story better than a journalist”. If the MST is to be believed, the public don’t think so and , as the Alibhai-Brown case shows, they now have the means and the motivation to tell them.

5 Replies to “Hubris and journalism”

  1. “Nobody tells a story like a journalist”? Well perhaps, depending on how you interpret that statement. But as for informing your readers, and I think that should be the most important criteria here, a blog is a much better tool, and the best niche bloggers I know are way ahead of a their beat reporter “equivalents” – for various institutional reasons. And I say that as a beat blogger AND -journalist. Besides, it’s easier, and comes more natural it seems, for my readers to inform me as a blogger, than as a journalist – the rules of engagement are different, and I think it works to the advantage both of the blogger and the blog readers more than the journalist and his/her readers.

  2. Kristine.

    I agree that a blog may be a better platform for the rules of engagement as they are developing. But that doesn’t preclude journalists. Perhaps encouraging columnists to engage in proper blogging rather than a walled garden approach would give them the power to control the comments in a more open way whilst keeping the platform to pontificate 🙂

  3. Yes, I think it’s usually a very good idea for journalists and columnists to get involved and be visible in their own comment sections, helps set the tone if nothing else – make it a better debate.

    But I’m also leaning more and more towards the conclusion that I inform my readers better on my blog than as a journalist due to how we find ourselves asked to write for clicks all the time (even at niche publications where the audience won’t be fooled by such cheap tricks, in fact we only end up undermining our credibility by doing so), how we can’t go really indepth on an issue the way certain subsets of readers would really like us to, and how, due to bad overall planning in some newsrooms, journalists have to fight and often fail to be able to follow up on vital stories for key subsets of their readers – the scatterbrain approach to what stories we cover and don’t.

    Besides, when you write for a big news site your readers will inviteably see you not as “Kristine” but as a representative for the news site, almost as an institution – and we all know how difficult, if not impossible, it is for an institution to engage successfully online. It’s easier, and many of my colleagues tell me this as well, to answer comments in the comment section if I can be a person with values and opinions, than if I have to try to be an impersonal, objective representative for the institution I work for. As an impartial representative, for instance, it’s more difficult to handle trolls effectively, and also it’s so much easier to throw abuse at that bloody obnoxious Guardian reporter, than at Steven, that young dad of three and cat owner who happens to work for The Guardian. And so on and so forth…. big topic, but glad you raised it – perhaps it’ll propel me to finally complete my half-written article(s) on this:-)

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