Journalists: also attempting to kill all first-born children

Nick Davies is one a one-man war against the journalism industry at the moment. His Guardian column today, not to mention serialisations in the Press Gazette and Private Eye have a few nasty home truths, although I’m not entirely sure the journalistic utopia Davies harks back to ever existed, or even how much is willful deception and how much is lack of time [1].

The real hook appears to be in the final couple of paragraphs from today’s column:

“…the Cardiff researchers found one other key statistic that helps to explain why this has happened. For each of the 20 years from 1985, they dug out figures for the editorial staffing levels of all the Fleet Street publications and compared them with the amount of space they were filling. They discovered that the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985. In other words, as a crude average, they have only one-third of the time that they used to have to do their jobs. Generally, they don’t find their own stories, or check their content, because they simply don’t have the time.”

That partly tallies with my own experience and that of others I know within the industry. Somedays that well-written press release relevant to your patch is just too good to pass up. Other days, if you want to take time getting one story as good as it possibly can be, the rest of them tend to be a little bit more rushed. Journalists are, after all, only human.[2]

I’ve also been involved in stories where I’ve had pretty intimate first-hand knowledge of both the subject and breaking news story. It’s in this case that often things fall down as the hunger for a fresh angle takes over. However, in defence of journalism, if you’ve got a complex breaking story, it’s never easy, especially if you’re going into an area cold.

In this respect, I’ve got a lot more time for Martin Bell’s argument against salaciousness, which has also appeared on CiF today. I was always taught, if the story’s strong enough, you don’t need to embellish it [3].
So yes, there is definitely an argument that journalism has suffered due to staffing cutbacks, time constraints, and a 24-hour news culture. But any journalist worth their salt, even on the busiest desk, should be able to pick up their own stories, once they get to know the patch well enough; they should be able to get most of the basic facts right. Most journalists I know have a fairly high bullshit detector.

There’s a nice quote from the Independent on Sunday’s editor John Mullin on the Press Gazette blog in response to Davies:

“It’s interesting thesis…No one would deny there is a modicum of truth in what he says. Life is harder in journalism than probably it was 20 years ago. But to say journalism as a whole is a passive processor of news is completely wrong.”

I’d broadly go along with that position. Davies is certainly not barking up the wrong tree. He definitely has a point, and if his comments encourage the profession to take a look at itself, that can only be a good thing. Whether or not journalists actively distort the news is another thing altogether. From my own experience, and I appreciate this is limited because it doesn’t include nationals, I’d say not. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

[1] And, unless I’ve read this wrong, he also doesn’t seem to count news agencies (such as pa and Reuters) as real journalists, which does them as massive disservice.

[2] As a quick aside here, this also shows the value of good and sensible PR. If the PR is done well, journalists shouldn’t have to be questioning the basics. If you’ve got an efficient, understanding, quick, helpful PR with a good nose for news, then it makes sense the journalist will return to them. Plus, keeping good contacts with the PR industry is useful for a journalist – you never know when you might need them. There’s still a perception that anything to do with public relations is a bad thing, and ‘the enemy’, when it really isn’t by any means.

[3] Although, again it’s a very idealistic vision here. As one early commenter on Bell’s piece points out, salaciousness and celebrity sells. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily mean news pitches itself into a race to the bottom. Often journalism acquits itself pretty well.

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