How many journalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: That sounds like a good little story, can you email me the media release?

(For a giggle, check out What PR people really think of journalists. I’m guilty of a few of those things myself.)

The original title of this post was ‘How many journalists does it take to interview one person and then write 414 words based on an eight-page summary of a report?’. But it wasn’t very catchy. The answer, if you read today’s Sydney Morning Herald, is two.

The story: Strong support for wind farms obscured, says CSIRO report

The journalists: Kelsey Munro, Ben Cubby (repeat offender)

The report: Acceptance of rural wind farms in Australia: a snapshot (this CSIRO page has links to pdfs of the report and the summary)

The only quotes in the SMH story come from Jim Smitham, the CSIRO’s deputy director of energy technology. The story notes that Dr Smitham was “one of the reviewers of the report”. One voice is hardly a balanced story. And how does it take two journalists to get quotes from just one person? If they were journalism students and submitted this story for a news reporting assignment, they’d fail.

I asked the CSIRO’s media department if either journalist spoke to Dr Smitham or if the quotes came from a media release. The answer: no media release was issued, and Kelsey Munro spoke to Dr Smitham. So what did Ben Cubby actually do to warrant his byline on this story? We’re talking about an eight-page report that has lots of pictures, surely it didn’t take two people to understand it? Perhaps he emailed Munro the link to the report.

Baffling journalist behaviour aside, let’s look at the story itself:
A peer-reviewed study by Brisbane researchers investigated attitudes to nine wind farms in various stages of development in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, concluding there was a strong level of support ”from rural residents who do not seek media attention or political engagement to express their views”.

By contrast, more than half of all wind farm proposals had been opposed by members of the Landscape Guardian group, the report noted.

That bit is important, particularly when you consider the final sentence in the story:
The Landscape Guardians could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Right. Is this story time-critical? No, it is not. The report was released on 13 January. So there was no need for it to be published without comment from the Landscape Guardians. Hell, you could even go nuts and interview a third person in order to write a balanced story that was actually useful to readers. After all, Brendan Gullifer from The Courier in Ballarat had quotes from five people his 327 word story: Questions arise over CSIRO wind farm report. Sure, some of those quotes came from media releases, and the article is more about local politics than it is about the report. And it gives more weight to people opposed to wind farms than to the peer-reviewed report, but even with these flaws it’s a lot better than the incredibly lazy offering from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Update 19 Jan: So, Ben Cubby read this post. This is his response on twitter:

Tweet from SMH environment editor, Ben Cubby

Highly professional tweet from SMH environment editor, Ben Cubby

Stay classy, Ben.

9 responses to “How many journalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

  1. Don’t know whether you have seen these warning labels……..
    http://www.tomscott.com/warnings/

  2. christophermoore

    Really? I thought the Courier’s article was a depressing example of what Jim Smitham described (in the SMH article) as “conflict-oriented media coverage”. Instead of reporting the peer-reviewed finding that the community largely have no problem with wind farms, they went with the bizarre angle alleging bias at the CSIRO. Who cares if two journalists shared the byline in the SMH article.

    Too often “balance” is code for “find someone who disagrees and make it seem like both sides of the argument have equal merit”. The desire for balanced journalism has given us the ridiculous situation where the huge weight of peer-reviewed climate science is “balanced” by a random blogger, parliamentarian, or wo/man on the street. The Landscape Guardians have as much scientific credibility as the Breatharians, and I prefer to read the work of journalists who recognise that.

    • Christophermoore, the point of the post was to look at why it took two journalists to write an unbalanced story that contained very little information. News as conflict is something I’ve written about before on this blog, but that is not what this post is about. As to “who cares if two journalists shared the byline in the SMH article” – I care. Obviously. And the reason I care is because I care about quality news. Not award-winning stuff, but the everyday news that people use to form their opinions. So when two journalists are needed to write such an information-free story, that’s important to me. Particularly when Ben Cubby, the environment editor, is a repeat offender when it comes to information-free stories.

      • Hey Newswithnipples

        I see Cubby and others from Fairfax are now on a knifes edge with editors leaving
        I also see that many of the sloppy journalists are in litigation for such sloppy and crap journalism
        Nice to see someone pursuing journalists for being slack hacks
        I also like Tom Scotts blog

        Keep up the great work, as people Cubby and others need to be highlighted for what they are

        • It’s not going to be a good few years for journalists. The ones who lose their jobs will probably find it tough to get another job in the industry simply because so many others will be after the same jobs. But it will be worse for the journalists who stay, because they’ll have to do the jobs of two or three people, which means nothing will be done well. It’ll be churnalism (re-written media releases and wire copy) because that’s all they have time for, so they’ll lose even more readers and then advertisers and here we go again.

  3. Acerbic and witty. You’re now in my favorites.

    Since it comes up; it took three goes and a couple of weeks before The Ballarat Courier finally ran a letter pointing out that an anti-windfarm article by Sarah Laurie of the The Waubra Foundation (a front for the Landscape Guardians) claimed support by a study that said the exact opposite.

    I’ve now followed up a number of examples of people making adverse health claims about cellphone towers, windfarm noise, and smart power meters, citing studies and reports as supporting their position, only to find that they said the opposite.

    The Courier in particular has a bad record for carrying such claims without doing even the most basic research to see if the work cited actually says what is claimed. In most cases it has only taken a few minutes in Google to find these egregious misrepresentations.

    When it comes to technicalities journalists are too often obviously arts graduates. During the Coode Island aftermath an Age journalist scoffed at the idea that the flame colour gave you the temperature (it’s called pyrometry). The reporter sent to cover the Creswick floods asked me what a “culvert” was.

    The Age did better after I admonished them for using their gardening reporter to cover the Qantas engine explosion, but for weeks after Fukushima I was texting ABC TV News daily that ANY Caesium-137 outside meant that fuel cladding had failed, clear proof of a meltdown, but for weeks they reported levels while allowing shills to say there was no sign of a meltdown.

    When somebody with a technical background tips you off it’s just plain lazy not to do some minimal checking.

    • A lot of the problem is that journalists have to quickly get their heads around topics that others spend years studying, in order to write a few hundred words that will be subbed by someone who doesn’t know the area either, and then published for an audience that also doesn’t know the area. (I only know of one journalist who holds a science doctorate and her name has escaped me at this moment.) The other part of the problem is there there really isn’t an effective way of dealing with corrections. A few words in the next issue, tucked on a page no one reads, just isn’t good enough.

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