What has to work: journalism by journalists

What I’m listening to as I type: Quixotic

 

My grandson will sometimes tell me: “I’m sad, nana.” That he says this is in itself a pretty joyful thing because he has autism, and for him to recognise and describe his emotion as ‘sadness’ is reassuring.

But today, I’m right there with him on the sadness meter.

I shouldn’t be. I’ve been commissioned to write a book and have spent the past week plugging in the first set of interviews – including a trip to Washington (I’m going to West Wing land!) and time with the extraordinarily helpful team at the Washington Post. The book, provisionally called ‘Future Journalism’, will pull together everything that excites and interests me about the business of news and give me an excuse to pick some very bright brains.

But today, thinking about that phrase ‘Future Journalism’ and my investigation, I feel sad.

Not the ‘future’ bit, I don’t for one moment believe journalism doesn’t have a future. While the future for current business models delivering journalism shifts and changes, and for many individual examples has collapsed (goodbye Indie newspaper, goodbye Spot.Us, goodbye Circa…), I don’t believe that news depends on newspaper owners.

Nor do I believe that the slow death of newspapers (beautifully captured in Will Steacy’s photo-essay) has meant the slow death of journalism.

Will Steacy's project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

Will Steacy’s project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

 

But I do think there’s a slow death of journalism going on and that the fault isn’t (or isn’t just) about collapsing ad revenues and expanding production costs, the responsibility is also ours: we journalists, we editors, we journalism teachers.

For every Spotlight or Snowden, there are hundreds of complaints about The Sun’s poor journalism and the Daily Mail’s dangerously misleading stories, and dozens of academic papers highlighting biased-reporting across our media.

 

Press Complaints Commission search March 31, 2016

 

Hell, even Obama blames us for Donald Trump.

We’re the people misusing statistics, or ignoring the tougher questions, or repeating the not-true story. It’s our job to get the journalism right – we shouldn’t need quangos or bloggers or Hollywood to remind us of our personal responsibility to integrity.

And we should not accept that the people we serve trust Wikipedia more than journalists, or that 64% of young Americans don’t trust what the media says, or that journalists are rated as only marginally more honest than bankers and builders. I couldn’t care less about click-baited headlines or celebrity-focused front pages, but I care that we’ve enabled that loss of faith in journalism.

You might argue ’twas ever thus: Kirk Douglas’s excoriating 1951 portrayal of truth-bending journalist Chuck Tatum as example.

Ace In The Hole - 2

Except it isn’t so very long since faith in journalists was the reverse of those 2015 surveys. The 1956 American Election Survey found 66% of citizens believed newspapers were fair, and in 1972 people had more trust in CBS anchor Walter Cronkite than in the president (source).

Public faith in a journalist’s ability – or willingness – to tell the truth has collapsed alongside, and almost as quickly, as the profession’s business model. We have to deal with that.

In my second week as news editor at a Northern daily, a woman rang the newsdesk and spoke to me about her missing teenage daughter. She’d been missing before but never as long as this. Her mother was worried about her daughter hanging around with young Asian men. She thought her daughter was drinking and maybe taking drugs; she’d lost control of her.  The police weren’t interested and social services had stopped answering calls from her. She didn’t know what to do.

You know where that story ends up, and I’d like to be able to say that when I took that phonecall to conference it kicked off a journalistic investigation that put horrendous human beings behind bars. But the reality is that we didn’t jump in until establishment voices – a courageous MP, police officers – started saying there was a story.

Spotlight wasn’t only about the story the Boston Globe journalists uncovered, it was also about a story that had been missed the first time around. We’re human, we’re busy, we have a lot of space to fill. But for journalism produced by journalists to have a future, we have to show our public that we’re more useful than Wikipedia and way more trustworthy than their accountant.

 

trust