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.