Thursday, June 17, 2010...9:00 am

#VOJ10: What’s the value of journalism? Will readers notice if it’s gone?

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In association with the Martin Cloake blog

If journalism is about telling stories to make sense of human experience, my blogging colleague Martin Cloake argues that our most pressing task is to tell them better and “not fall into the trap of disregarding the accumulated knowledge of the trade”. Our key task is to focus on a sharper definition of the skills required.

But I think that, even if we have a lovingly and carefully thought-out definition of the skills required by the ideal journalist, the problem is that journalism simply isn’t as important to its intended audience as it thinks it is.

This concern was voiced at the Value of Journalism event by Emily Bell of the Guardian. As reported by Polis director Charlie Beckett, her argument is that the mainstream media is “losing the attention of the public. In summary, ‘We are moving from an age of representation to the age of participation’.”

Let’s face it, if the entire industry collapsed tomorrow, and no professional journalism existed in the west, the whole edifice of western civilisation would not simply collapse. Indeed, an awful lot of people would hardly notice – according to the National Readership Survey, only about 52% of adults read a daily newspaper, for example.

Journalism is most needed where it’s not allowed – the Middle East, North Korea, increasingly Russia. But is it true to say that our freedom and democracy will wither away, if journalism as we have known it disappears because its consumers don’t really want it?

This presupposes that the media actually does the job that journalists say it does – to shine a light on corruption and hold power to account.

I’m always flummoxed by the spectacle of the media focusing vast resources and energy on celebrity exposes, sexual stings and an ocean of puffery, while the government of the day chips away at civil liberties and builds a giant surveillance state – illuminated by barely a glimmer of light from the media’s searchlight of truth.

Nobody cares about this stuff. Certainly very few of my journalism students. They believe (not unreasonably, in some ways) that journalism is all about celebrity, sport and music, with possibly a bit of tech and gaming in the mix. Crusading journalism is as alien to them as grammar and punctuation.

And, increasingly, they aren’t that interested in the qualities that you flag up as our key USP – scepticism, inquisitiveness, balance and distinguishing opinion from fact.

Of course, our argument is that they should be. But if that’s true, we need to sell the importance of journalism more effectively than we currently do.

(Continued on the Martin Cloake blog tomorrow morning)

3 Comments

  • Today, we discover that the CCTV system intended to improve road safety has grown to become a surveillance system. And only because of persistent, determined FOI work by what the Telegraph coyly calls ‘civil liberties campaigners’. Why doesn’t it say exactly who? Because it wants to give the impression that it got the story itself (which, of course, it didn’t).

    And how about shining the ‘searchlight of truth’ on the lies we’re told about the effectiveness of all this surveillance?

    “Cameras keep you safer,” police tell us. Do journalists question it? Er, no. It’s up to the Lib Dems to launch FOI requests that prove otherwise.

    Our national press is totally absent from so many of these vital stories. As you say, Simon, the ‘searchlight of truth’ is something journalists boast about constantly, but it’s been some time since they used it properly… or at all.

  • ‘Crusading journalism is as alien to them as grammar and punctuation’.

    It’s a nice soundbite, but we need to be a bit careful here. Where I work we are finding that journalism students have often grown up in households where their parents don’t take a daily newspaper – this must have some impact on their world outlook.

    But perhaps they are reading newspapers and seeing how little ‘crusading journalism’ is actually in them, as you identify above – so they could be perhaps more market savvy then we give ’em credit for.

    The ultimate problem, of course, with online news is that it allows us to totally ‘drop out’ from general news and personalise our experience. Like in so many newsrooms and magazine offices, where I used to work we the gutted newspapers in the morning to filter out the business/technology stories – that’s a good exercise because you innevitably read other stuff – you suddenly become very good at trivia questions. Not so with online.

    We certainly encourage students to make FOI requests as part of their investigations. Indeed, local employers are getting more than a little annoyed by the numbers that are coming their way from students! But our students probably have far more time to do investigations than journalists do in the real world – a bit sad me thinks!

    But seriously, who is doing proper investigative journalism on a consistent basis these days? Is it really newspapers, I think it’s probably shifting more in the direction of TV – BBC and Channel 4 in particular.

  • But seriously, who is doing proper investigative journalism on a consistent basis these days?

    Excellent question, Steve. Can’t remember the last time I read any kind of investigative newspaper piece that took time, effort, determination and – whisper it – money to research.

    Very occasionally I watch such programmes on TV, but even (especially?) there, the ‘lowest common denominator’ effect (Compliance! Charter! Yoof angle!) tends to water down the content and/or its conclusions.

    Private Eye is about the only thing I read that consistently publishes revelatory information more or less consistent with the ‘searchlight of truth’ mission.

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