Monday, June 14, 2010...1:00 pm

#VOJ10: What’s the value of journalism? A debate on standards

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In association with the Martin Cloake blog

Following last Friday’s Value of Journalism event by the BBC College of Journalism and Polis, media blogger Martin Cloake and I have kicked off our own debate on that very question.

In the first of our exchange, Martin asks “is there still such a thing as journalism, and if so, what do we mean by it?”. He argues that, although journalism has never been a profession, the fact that it is now so open to new entrants means we need to define the difference between “journalism” and simply being able to publish information.

These differences include

  • Protecting sources
  • Not naming minors
  • Offering the right of reply
  • Healthy scepticism
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Balance
  • Distinguishing opinion from fact

Ultimately, he argues, “there is a set of values, techniques, whatever, that define a thing called journalism.”


Never mind the quality

My big worry for journalism is actually that its intended audience is not up to judging its quality, because our education system doesn’t equip school-leavers with core literacy and communication skills.

This is a big problem for the production of journalism – the new intake of practitioners is simply not up to meeting your skills agenda. But it’s also a problem for its consumption – those reading journalistic output haven’t got the critical ability to appreciate its worth.

This sounds terribly elitist (and in a way it is). But my criticism is aimed at the education system rather than the young people who have to suffer it. And it is based on the pervasive poor literacy I and other journalism academics encounter, day in and day out at university.

It’s an uphill struggle. It’s not that my students are not able to understand the difference between accurate and inaccurate – or incomplete – reportage. In fact, when I talked them through the slightly rubbish BBC story on child communication anxiety from January this year, they were quite quick to pick up on its flaws.

But they don’t seem to go out of their way to question what they read or watch. And they don’t seem to discriminate much in terms of quality of content. It seems they are much happier reading Perez Hilton than Vogue, or Facebook and YouTube rather than the Times. That wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that these are the future practitioners of the craft, not just its consumers.

So what does this mean for journalism? Even if trained journalists do tell stories better than ordinary folks, our problem is that the consumers of journalistic output seem not to care very much.

If the number of newspaper readers is in decline, and people (especially young people) are flocking to social networking sites and vapid video content for their entertainment, what does that say?

Is it that, given a lower-brow alternative, people will choose it (because they are essentially not up to consuming the better alternative)? Or is it that journalistic output isn’t of as high a quality as it thinks it is?

(Continued on the Martin Cloake blog tomorrow morning)

8 Comments

  • Your last question: IMO the answer is a bit of both.

    To me, the ‘don’t-care-much-and-prefer-lowbrow-anyway’ problem is simply a consequence of a generation of extraordinary and unprecedented growth and prosperity (illusory prosperity built upon unsustainable debt, admittedly… but you know what mean).

    Nobody under 30 in the UK today has ever seen or known ‘hard times’. That’s a whole generation accustomed to ever rising living standards, more or less full employment and – a genuine UK first – a level of attention from their parents, in childhood, unknown to previous kids.

    Their thoughts, reactions and preoccupations are genuinely unprecedented – and historically anomalous.

    So I think worry is premature. The next decade or two promise to be much more ‘normal’ (ie much more difficult), and inevitably people of all ages will reacquire an interest in politics, economics, ‘truth’ and news of all kinds.

    When it matters, it matters.

  • Freelance UnboundNo Gravatar
    June 14th, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Actually a very good point – newspaper reading and media engagement was much stronger during tough and uncertain times. I certainly remember this from the much more politicised 70s and 80s.

    Whether, of course, newspapers in their present form will be able to respond to this and exploit it profitably is another matter.

  • Yes, there’s a lot in that, and certainly something I’ve been reflecting on as a Dad. But I’ve always been a tiny bit suspicious of the ‘the worse it gets the better it is for raising consciousness’ argument. I know that’s not exactly what you’re saying, Soilman, but there’s an element of that and the point needs refining.

  • I’ve been reading the debate here and at Martin’s blog – it’s great and please keep it up!

    The conference was interesting, but it now seems clear we need to differentiate between general ‘communication’ and ‘journalism’. A speaker argued that just because the Tories have an email list of 500,000 subscribers, which is (apparently) larger than some newspaper circulations, that this actually means something. In fact I would say that it is the least impressive statistic I’ve read in the last five years. There are a lot of threats to journalism, but an email list from a political party isn’t one of them.

    On the issue of students ‘don’t seem to discriminate much in terms of quality of content’ – I agree. But in defense of the celebrity blogs, Anne Petersen, University of Texas, did a fantastic analysis of content on TMZ.com (http://tvn.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/1/62).

    To crudely and briefly summarise, Petersen finds that despite its trashy appearance and anarchic form, TMZ (and other Hollywood gossip blogs) engage in what we would consider to be ‘traditional investigative reporting’ – she highlights the story about the Northern Trust bank by TMZ which was a political, rather than celeb story.

    Although the examples given appear few and far between, it is certainly the case that these blogs sometimes demonstrate key characteristics of journalism – investigation, breaking stories that other media pick up etc.

    A more worrying trend is a general reluctance of audiences to engage with long articles and complex debate – this seems to be a particular problem with students and the young who have grown up with online news. This trend is probably the most serious threat to journalism.

    Good journalism can also be ‘popular’, lively and succinctly written – the classic Daily Mirror reporting of Pilger, Foot and the Cassandra column seems very relevant for the online age. Perhaps we need a renewed emphasis on this in teaching.

    Sadly, today we read that Mirror journalists are balloting for strike action due to massive cuts and the introduction of a new content management system.

    I agree with Soilman (love the name) to a degree – come national crisis time, we flock back to those old established names in journalism. So perhaps a good old-fashioned world war would help us out here…

  • I’m glad you mentioned the classic Mirror, Steve. Watch this space. But if war’s the answer, we’ve got the question wrong.

  • I would really like to know if we are all backing Murdoch’s pay wall….

    a) Do we think it will work/be a long term success?
    b) Do we hope it will work?

    PS: I appreciate we need to define what ‘working’ and a ‘success’ is…

  • I don’t have an ideological objection to charging for online content. I’m not sure it will work for news, especially in a market containing the BBC. But it could, and arguably should, work for more specialist content. I haven’t, so far, paid to get on Times Online, a site I enjoyed. But I still read the paper most days. Which I pay for.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to make a living from the media either, and regarding this with suspicion seems to me the reverse side of the argument that pretends it’s possible to ‘stop’ people ‘doing journalism’.

  • Freelance UnboundNo Gravatar
    June 15th, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I’m not backing the paywall – in the sense that I don’t think it will work (he’s welcome to try though).

    UCA had a very illuminating visit from Chris Marling, the editor of Broadband Genie, who talked to our students about SEO and making money online. If old-style newspapers were an example of editorial piggybacking on print advertising, then Broadband Genie is part of a new model that sees editorial piggybacking on new ways of making money – in this case primarily affiliate marketing.

    He was very convincing that it’s entirely possible to make money as a news operation, but not by charging for it. Instead, it’s part of a wider online business plan.

    Broadband affiliate marketing is a very niche affair, obviously, so there’ll be more difficulty in replicating that over at a general news operation. So I wonder if we’ll see a fragmentation of coverage – many more niche publishers covering small slices of business/geography etc – the whole hyperlocal thing. This may then be aggregated by generalist sites (Huffington Post-style).

    We’re back to our debate about reporting versus librarianship – I do think there’ll be more librarianship in journalism in future…

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