What It Is We Do When We Do Journalism

Sometime yesterday morning a journalist named Brian Whelan got a leaflet through the door of his home in East London. It was a leaflet from the Ministry of Defence telling him that a battery of surface-to-air missiles was to be stationed on the roof of the block where he lived, as part of the security precautions for the upcoming London Olympics.

There had been no warning, no consultation with Whelan or his fellow residents. Understandably alarmed at the prospect of several hundred pounds of propellant and high explosive sitting on his roof for the two weeks of the Games, he tweeted about it.

Some hours later, there was a story in the Telegraph, with an interview with Whelan, about the leaflet. People had blogged about the situation; the blogs had been shared. A little while later, it was top story on Sky News and Brian Whelan was standing in the wind and the rain outside his home being interviewed.

By the next morning, the BBC had caught up, and a little later so had US television news outlets. The story was everywhere.

It has, I have to admit, been fascinating to watch this story break and spread over the past couple of days. The engine of all this has, of course been social media – Twitter mostly. I would submit that, if this had happened twenty years ago, things would have developed very differently.

Back then, the first step would probably have been for Brian Whelan to write a piece for whichever publication he worked for – or in the case of a non-journalist, to contact the papers about it; maybe the Standard or the Sun or the Mail. The story would have been noted by other organisations, but it would have happened slowly. It might have taken several days before the television news paid any attention to it, if they noticed it at all before it faded from the print media. This would have given the authorities time to formulate a Position, time to think about what was going on, to smooth feathers and pour oil on troubled waters. It might have been a rather small storm in a rather small teacup.

But it didn’t happen like that. It came up over the horizon more or less all at once, and the authorities are still trying to catch up.

Throughout all this, Brian Whelan has behaved with great professionalism. Coincidentally, I believe he happened to be on the scene when this weekend’s other big London story – the siege at Tottenham court Road – broke, so if he was starting to look a little shell-shocked on the news he had every right to be.

I suppose it’s trite to say that the nature of news gathering is changing, but I’m going to say it anyway. The nature of news gathering is changing. Where once journalists relied on walk-ins and stringers and contacts and simple pavement-pounding for a story, the stories now come to us from all over the world. Twenty minutes on the internet, an hour or so with email, maybe a couple of phone calls, you’ve got a story. You don’t even need to work for a newspaper to get your story out any more – although it helps, if you want to get paid for it.

This has given rise to a whole new subset of news, the aggregation website, a site which just bangs up links from everywhere. I could be wrong, but the earliest one I can think of was the Drudge Report, which was actually quite an important resource for me at one time. More sophisticated is the Huffington Post, whose habits have become so notorious that even President Obama took a poke at them in his speech at last night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

The environment has become faster; the news is now having to keep up with the wave of tweets and blogs. Sometimes it copes, sometimes it doesn’t. The acceleration of the news cycle, though, has meant corners being cut to get stories, techniques being used which should not have been, ethics being, if not abandoned, then bent into accommodating new shapes.

Maybe it’s time we took a step back from all of this and looked at the nature of journalism itself. What is it we do when we do journalism?

In its most basic form, we report. That’s how we get the word ‘reporter.’ We report what we see and what people tell us, we write it down and we do not put any gloss or spin of any kind on it. Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

You don’t see that so often. There is always an agenda, a subtle colouring, an Attitude. Usually it comes from the publication a journalist writes for. A Star journalist and a Guardian journalist, if – god forbid – they were tasked to report on the same story, would each approach it in different ways, reflecting their respective publications. Quite often, the stance comes from the individual journalist. Pretty much all the internet journalism I’ve read is highly personal, more akin – as this piece is – to Op-Ed work than simple reporting.

Again, a sweeping generalisation, but it’s my opinion that Op-Ed pieces are always political in some way. They always have some kind of agenda. There’s little reporting of facts other than to establish a basis for an opinion. I’ve read some truly outstanding Op-Ed work down the years, both in the prints and online, and I’ve read some truly execrable stuff. The majority of it usually falls somewhere in the median.

Journalism is a powerful thing. If it wasn’t, Presidents and Prime Ministers wouldn’t have press officers and Media Units and they wouldn’t court newspaper proprietors. I think there may be a case for saying that if journalism wasn’t so powerful, we might not have national newspapers in the form we have them. To a greater or lesser extent, they exist now to influence public opinion rather than to simply report the facts. They speak to their own constituencies.

Of course, no one needs me to tell them that journalism in this country – and elsewhere – is in a painful state of flux at the moment. The collapse of advertising revenue, the rise of rolling television news, the rise of the internet and social media, have all hit the industry very hard. What the business will look like when everything finally shakes out is anyone’s guess; I have no idea.

What I can guess is that social media will have an even greater impact than they do now. That phrase ‘citizen journalist’ is at the moment just a euphemism for news organisations to say, ‘send us your photos and your news content, it saves us the cost of employing a journalist to get it and we might not even pay you for it.’ I suspect that might change. At the moment, enough online journalists are content – if grudgingly – to allow their stuff to be used by aggregation sites in return for nothing more than ‘exposure’ to ensure the success of these sites. I don’t see that lasting much longer.

I’ve strayed, as usual, way off my original subject, but for the first time this may be appropriate. What it is we do when we do journalism has, similarly, strayed. It’s no longer really about reporting; it’s mostly to do with opinion-forming and – most importantly – opinion-leading. We know the political and social stance of most of our major news outlets, and we tend to distrust those which do not match our own opinions, even on identical stories.

The one exception – or I would have called it an exception until quite recently – has been the BBC, which has struggled to remain independent and unbiased for the majority of its existence, causing it to be excoriated by both Right and Left. Sometimes, unamusingly, at the same time. Quite what is going through the mind of the BBC these days, I can’t tell. Multiple scandals, the very real fear of losing the licence fee, may have concentrated minds, may have caused a loss of nerve over some issues. I don’t know. Possibly even they don’t know.

We live in strange times. Leveson has lifted the lid on the behaviour of our journalists and newspaper owners and they have, in many – although by no means all – cases been found sorely wanting. Twitter and bloggers are setting the news agenda to an increasing extent. People using the internet and what Rupert Murdoch called ‘smart telephones’ this week are giving us access to events we might never even have heard of even five years ago. Things are changing

Brave new world.

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