This is not good enough

One of the frustrating things about most mainstream media reporting is that it fails to give readers the basic information about the story. A few days ago, Andrew Elder wrote a great post on the banality of political reporting, and this quote stands out:

The mainstream media isn’t giving us the information we need because it can’t be bothered.

I’ll add to that: journalists all do the same thing and so they haven’t noticed that what they do – get media release, call someone who is going to criticise it, make sure juicy quotes are at the top – results in a story that only looks balanced to a journalist. In political reporting, of course the shadow minister is going to disagree with the minister, so put that quote right at the bottom and use the important space to explain the information and speak to experts. You know, those people who are not politicians. Yes, it will take more than the 10 minutes it currently takes to read the media release, email a few generic questions to the minister’s media office because if you get a quote that isn’t in the media release you can put your byline on the story – although that doesn’t stop many online journos putting their bylines on re-written media releases. It’s about whether you want to be a good journalist or if you’re happy being a mediocre journalist.

(And while on the subject of political reporting, wouldn’t it be nice if this year, Fairfax and New Ltd editors told state and federal politicians that they will no longer publish quips. That unless a politician gives a serious answer, they will not feature in the day’s news because they have nothing worthwhile to add. Ah, I’m a dreamer, eh?)

In journalism courses you are taught to always ask the five Ws and one H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The Why is almost never asked in modern journalism, usually because it requires big picture thinking on the part of the journalist, to see how this current announcement fits in with other announcements. But the What is also a casualty of modern journalism.

If any j teachers want to hang on to it, today’s Sydney Morning Herald is a good example of what not to do.

On the front page is this story by Simon Mann: Romney wins Iowa caucus by eight votes:

MITT ROMNEY has taken a first, tentative step towards the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination, clinching victory in the first ballot by the narrowest margin ever – just eight votes.

The one-term Massachusetts governor, long considered a frontrunner in a relatively weak field of candidates, pipped a fast finishing Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and deeply conservative Christian, in Iowa’s famed caucuses.

In 729 words across pages one and six, there is no explanation of why Iowa’s caucuses are “famed”. It’s a story about American politics for an Australian audience that doesn’t even explain why this event is important. That is a basic journalism fail.

Another front page story – Millions wasted on Aboriginal job projects, by Anna Patty – is based on a report but doesn’t even name it. It also mentions a second report, but again, no name. What is the story about? It’s about a report. What report? I don’t know. So it fails the What requirement.

I’m going to skip to page five here, because it’s a page that keeps giving and giving, and who has time to read a critique of every story in the paper?

A story by Jen Rosenberg about students who did well in the International Baccalaureate – ‘Intellectual freedom’ pushes students to top of the class – doesn’t explain what the International Baccalaureate is. How is it different to the HSC? What subjects are offered? It’s an international program so how are these subjects taught? How are they assessed? Do they sit exams at the same time as the HSC exams?

Louise Hall’s story – Ex-Scottish baron convicted of murder plot invokes ancient law in release bid – doesn’t adequately explain this “ancient law”:

THE former Scottish baron Malcolm Huntley Potier, who is in jail for twice plotting to murder his former de facto wife, has launched a fresh attempt to gain his freedom under the ancient law of habeas corpus.

The only explanation of habeas corpus is this:

Representing himself, Potier said he was seeking the issue of writ of habeas corpus, a legal action from 17th-century England through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention, after his most recent bail application was refused.

It is taken straight from the first sentence on Wikipedia:

Habeas corpus (Latin: “you may have the body”) is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention, that is, detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence.

Definitions straight from wiki or a dictionary happen, and sometimes the way it’s worded is the best. But are you any wiser about what’s going on in this story? I’m not. I think what’s happening is that, despite being convicted, this guy reckons he should be let out of jail while he tries to prove there was a miscarriage of justice, and the law allows that to happen. That doesn’t seem right, otherwise everyone would be doing it. And if it is right, then the story should say this. I shouldn’t have to read a news story several times, and go elsewhere to work out what the term the whole story centres on actually means, in order to get a vague understanding of what’s going on.

Ben Cubby’s story – La Nina whips unseasonal weather into a wet frenzy – doesn’t even explain what La Nina is.

And still on page five, this story by Saffron Howden is a media beat up: No policy to restrict killer’s access to passport or licence:

NO GOVERNMENT agency sought to restrict killer Trent Jennings’s access to passports or licences before he was allowed out unsupervised of a psychiatric hospital on day leave.

OH MY GOD THE GOVERNMENT AGENCIES FAILED TO BLOCK HIS ACCESS TO THESE DOCUMENTS! Er, no. The spokeswoman from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the spokeswoman from Roads and Maritime Services both said prisoners are entitled to passports and licences, just like non-prisoners. But that didn’t stop Howden or the sub sensationalising the story to the point of stupidity.

So, what do we – their audience – do about it? Not buying the SMH isn’t going to work because I’d rather kick myself in my own vagina than read News Ltd publications. Instead, every time you read a news story that is inadequate, blog about it. Tweet about it. Use the hashtag #journalismfail. We are their audience and we demand, at the very least, adequate fucking journalism.

43 responses to “This is not good enough

  1. I fear my tweetstream will be nothing more than #journalismfail, oh and stuff about cricket.

    Speaking of which, since our big blue planet has no Peter Roebuck, there is no such thing as a cricket journalist.

  2. Sometimes – like tonight when I have an assignment due for my Bachelor of Comms with a Journalism major – I read posts like this and I just want to withdraw, save my money and my time!
    Seriously, how can they even pretend this is okay?

  3. Thank you so much. I crave for the what and the why. If a story is outside my area of training or experience I’m usually left wondering what and why.

    • And let’s face it, most stories are outside most people’s training and expertise, and so we rely on the journalists to explain why the story is important enough to be reported.

  4. This is part of the reason why I blog about politics – my main aim to write the stories/opinion pieces etc that no one else is writing ie actually reading reports before writing about them, discussing whether something is a good idea from a pure policy perspective, looking beyond the obvious to analyse the political impact of something.

    Occasionally I even browse Hansard in my spare time. I figure that if the MSM don’t, someone needs to.

    • You mean you read more than just the media release about the report? You just mean you read the executive summary, right?

      By the way, I really enjoyed your piece in The King’s Tribune. Such a great publication. We gave Father ManFriend a subscription for Christmas and took a spare copy to a NYE party for the hosts. (What dorks we are.)

      • I’ll have you know that I slogged through a 300 page report on the sale of the electricity industry to write this post: I refuse to believe a single reporter did (at least, if they did their stories showed no sign of it.)

        As for the Kings Tribune Piece – thanks for that! I have a few more in the pipeline in the coming months, so hopefully they will get a run. Haven’t decided who to give my second copy to yet…

  5. When Tony Abbott performed at Nolan’s Transport at Gatton, CEO said carbon tax would cost him an extra $200,000 in fuel. Tony Abbott again visited Notal’s Transport. This time TA said it would cost $1 million extra for fuel. Journalists didn’t question the discrepancy. Didn’t even mention fuel costs. Numbers were just accepted without question. Did they suspect that it was just made up, not worth reporting. Why didn’t they ask? It’s a small point I guess but all the small points go to make up the big point.

    • I don’t know why they didn’t ask. Probably because they didn’t remember that he’d previously given the much smaller figure. And you’re right, it’s all part of the big picture.

      Marian Rumens, welcome to the News with Nipples.

  6. One of the things that convinced me to undertake a journalism degree was the desire to make myself (hopefully) an “excellent” journalist, rather than another graduate of the mediocre, which seems to be the status quo these days. Until reading this piece, I’d never fully understood how an article could have the names of 4+ journalists in the byline and still fail to cover all relevant aspects of the story.

    If you intend to blog about EVERY inadequate news story you read, you’re going to need to arm yourself with a platoon of literate, typewriter-wielding helper monkeys.

  7. Great article. I find Australian journalism VERY amateur…

  8. I think you mean kick yourself in the vulva. Apart from that error, an excellent critique.

    (To properly explain; the vulva refers to the exterior area and the clitoris whereas the vagina is the tract connecting the opening and the uterus).

  9. Thanks for fighting the good fight ,maybe one day you will win and the lazy bastards will do their job. BUT they will start to get shitty with you if you keep pointing out how inadequate they are. I admire your persistence in reading this dross. Power to you.

  10. There’s no journalism any more, there’s only writing factories. I hate it when you read a story, think you’ve missed an answer (to the 5xW + 1xH), re-read it, only to find the answers weren’t there after all and you were right – it was just sloppy. I enjoyed your post, because it validated my angst. I’m not alone … yay?


    I’m here because I googled for a communications assignment on media ethics. I was doing a piece on the treatment of Madeleine Pulver/collar bomb hoax. Your comments on her media stalking were great. Yes, I’m referencing your blog.

    Good on you for persevering with a M-F SMH. I read somewhere the weekday editions might be ditched. Brung it on themselves.

  11. This is why I haven’t read a newspaper for years. I get my thoughtful commentary from blogs like this one. Keep up the great work!

  12. Sometime lurker here but your writing rang a bell with me. Waleed Ali on Radio National yesterday morning, noted that some untruths are being said by the Oppo about the NBN. So to clear things up, he spoke to . . . MTurnbull! Cor blimey!
    Keep up the good work!

  13. Really well said. Sometimes I think I’m going bananas because I can’t work out the basic background to a news story or even what the story is on about. Glad it’s not me.

    • A great example is the Australian coverage of the US election process. I know about who is “winning”, but nothing about what it means, or what the primaries actually are. And what I know about what the candidates stand for, I’ve gained from twitter, not from newspapers. All the newspapers do is cover the horse race, rather than the horses.

      • This raises an interesting point – given there are many excellent sources for information (twitter, blogs, primary materials, those MSM writers who we applaud and value) this lowering in value from the MSM is perhaps not such a big deal.

        In other words, there IS an alternative to not buying the SMH – I know, because I stopped buying the SMH 6 months ago (and deleted their awful app) and rely on twitter (both the people I follow and the pieces they RT) to keep me informed about what is going on.

        I guess my point is this – if the MSM is left to those people who can’t be bothered doing anything more than buying the same paper they’ve bought all their life, and the rest of us rely on news sources we trust and respect, is the denigration a problem?

        Not having a shot at anyone – just a thought.

        • It is interesting. But, for me, it goes back to the function of news: to inform. If it can’t do that, then it shouldn’t be called news.

          Plus, not everyone has access to the internet, or time to find and read primary materials.

  14. Pingback: Do we need the mainstream media? | the news with nipples

  15. Mr Patrick Lion, take a bow. No need to back up the main point of his articles with, you know, facts or analysis, just write any old guff and get it published!

    I do wonder how that man made it through primary school.

  16. Have you seen this (I know you don’t usually read the Oz – was linked to on a friend’s fb)

    My head is exploding – it has pulled together all these unrelated semi-facts (because some of them I think to be untruths or misleading) to make some type of liberationalist argument. Oh and apparently obese, poor people shouldn’t get free legal representation, or something. grr – after a long day of meetings my brain is struggling to articulate its wrongness – hence to NWN!

  17. Pingback: An open letter to Fairfax readers’ editor, Judy Prisk | the news with nipples

  18. Pingback: How many journalists does it take to change a lightbulb? | the news with nipples

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