Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Professionalism

The New York Times announces it's laying off 100 newsroom staff. Oh well, at least it's still healthier than The Observer.

Our own New Zealand Herald shows what happens when a newspaper thinks that cutting its newsroom staff is a sensible answer to falling circulation. Basically, the less news-writing resource the paper has, the more news gets written by those who are willing to put money into it. Namely, those who stand to make money out of manipulating public opinion.

It's most obvious in political coverage, both here and in the US. Reporters no longer make any effort to cover politics: they simply reprint, largely unchecked, the stories fed to them by professional spin doctors. (I know how that works. I've edited a magazine myself.) In the US now, "political reporting" means getting two insane people to shout at each other for three minutes, while a nominal moderator makes token efforts to drag them back on-topic. The ghost of Joseph Pulitzer forbid that they might say something that could be interpreted as critical of the talking heads. That would be "expressing an opinion".

(And that, dear Americans, is why Fox News is wiping the floor with the older networks, and why your best current-affairs programme comes from Comedy Central. Those journalists are not only allowed, they're actively encouraged, to take up a position of their own.)

In the UK, the BBC has been a layer of insulation against this effect. But even the Beeb has spread its abundant resources too thin, in pursuit of the chimerical 24-hour news cycle. And now it's under direct attack, by the likes of Murdoch Jr and his minions in the Tory party. "It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism", bleats James Murdoch, "that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it."

Newsflash, Mr Murdoch: nobody pays for "independent digital journalism". There are some things you just can't pay for, even if you want to. If journalism is to be independent, it has to be free in both senses of the word.

Let's try to formulate a pithy observation here:
Professionals do what they're paid to do.
Okay, that seems a little... oblique. But it's actually at the heart of the problem. Let's try a corollary:
Professionals hate to work when they're not being paid.
Still not clear? Okay, try this:
A true professional will do the bare minimum amount of work required to get paid.
Really, that's implicit in the word "professional". If we want people to do better, that's the word we have to focus on.

Already, it's obvious that bloggers do a far better job than "professional" journalists of covering many stories, because they're keen. Therefore, they don't stop working the moment they've got "enough" for today.

Sadly, there's no way of getting an actual news feed from blogs, because blogs simply don't try to cover all news. If they did that they'd be newspapers, employing professional staff paid to do things they weren't particularly interested in, and we'd be back to square one.

3 comments:

HiStandards said...

I've been looking (SEARCHING) for objectivity in the news. I trust that I find it in NPR which gives me BBC weekday afternoons. It's absolutely a matter of trust given and then taken with a grain of salt. When it comes to "paid for" news, I believe in Comedy Central. But I'm just drawn that way. I agree with the mentality of not giving anything of value away for free. My chemistry prof beat that into my head when I was a tutor. That being said, I always played the system when I was tutoring, trying to get as much money as possible from my students. I wasn't pure and I have to believe any money-driven system isn't either.

vet said...

When I was a journalist, in the UK, what was drummed into me first of all was: a journalist is just a regular citizen, a civilian. It's not a special status, it doesn't give you any special privileges. Anyone can go about with a notebook and a camera, anyone can ask questions and write down what people say - there's no "magic" involved.

I think "objectivity" is a hugely misunderstood idea in journalism. I mean, the basic idea is simple: just tell the truth, what you've seen or experienced yourself. If you've been told something, tell us who told you, don't pretend you were an eyewitness. But that raises the problem that you can't say everything, and that's where the bizarre idea of "balance" comes in - giving "both sides" equal time to say whatever drivel they like...

What good journalists do - and the BBC, as far as I'm concerned, trains and employs some of the best in the world - is begin their report by telling an entirely subjective story, then back it up with whatever objective evidence has led them to believe in it.

It's not a perfect formula. Journalists are massively open to being led, misled and even brainwashed. Most British journalists are strongly biased at an early stage in their careers, and tend to retain that bias for life, transmitting it to their readers/listeners in the process. (For instance: in the Balkan wars, they're usually strongly anti-Serb; in the Middle East, they're prejudiced against both Israel and Iran.)

But it's a lot better than the American approach, which is to pretend to be "impartial" when in fact they're nothing of the sort.

As far as I'm concerned, the best coverage is not going to come from people who are doing what they're doing because they're being paid for it. The best coverage comes from those who are passionate about their subject. And it follows, pretty much by definition, that they're not "objective".

Check out The Secret History of Helmand, for instance. It gives a fascinating insight into why Afghanistan is the way it is, today. But is it "objective"? I'm not even sure how to answer that.

jarbury said...

Thanks for the kind words about my blog. I think it's fairly easy for me to dig quite deeply on transport issues because it is my sole focus, and I don't have to satisfy any editor other than myself when it comes to what I write.