In a series of editorials where leading writers are free to say what they want under a pen name, Little Bird writes in defence of journalists (and how we should really be reading the press).
Journalists have a curious status. They are frequently mythologised and given heroic roles to play in serious dramas where they defend the public interest with a dogged integrity that is leavened with a charming, somewhat dissolute, recklessness. Meanwhile, in the real world, they represent the second least trustworthy occupation (better than politicians but worse than second-hand car salesmen) and are constantly accused of lying, inaccuracy, intrusion and other skulduggery.
Perhaps both perspectives are a form of acknowledgement of the important role that journalists are supposed to play in society. Their central function and profile mean that they are impossible to ignore, and so everyone has an opinion about them, for better or worse. Increasingly, it seems to be for worse.
Unfortunately, the common view of journalists and how they work seems to be flawed, even to someone with decades of experience inside the trade, and this matters. Not because it is painful to the feelings of journalists, but because it leads people to read and interpret journalism in the wrong way, which has a wider, negative social impact. In this context, these myths seem worth busting (or at least refining), based on the experience of working among them. Perhaps that way, we can all do a better job of reading what has been published and understand how it came to be that way. Let’s take a look at the myths.
1. They always get it wrong.
Most people who have read an article about a topic they know well will have spotted mistakes. This seems to contribute to a widely held belief that most journalism is riddled with inaccuracy and that journalists are slapdash about verifying facts. But we only see the evidence when we have serious personal knowledge to use as a benchmark.
Journalists do make mistakes, but that is usually because they are obliged to find, research and write stories under significant time pressure, often without previous expertise and in a context where the subjects do their best to prevent an accurate telling of the story.
In my experience, journalists hate getting things wrong and work hard to do a good job of mastering a brief quickly and marshalling solid information to share with their audience. Given the working conditions, it is impressive how much they get right.
2. They just make it up.
There is a strain of journalism in which invention became de rigueur, but it is not the norm. Tabloid journalism in the 1980s morphed into a form of entertainment, detached from its factual moorings, in which journalists could invent stories about celebrities if it was thought amusing enough or likely to boost readership. The context was usually relatively unserious, but precedent was dangerous and has certainly undermined trust in journalism in general.
However, this is still not the way that most journalists operate. Journalists are not generally well paid and, typically, it is their thirst to find out what the hell is really going on that drives them. This is incompatible with the idea that they, or the lawyers on their publications, are content with stories plucked from the air. Getting the story and nailing down the facts is what it’s all about.
3. They spend hours at boozy lunches.
Once upon a time, before the internet came along, heavy drinking and long lunches were common. In fact, in the heady days of Fleet Street, hacks would call in at the newsroom to check their messages in the morning, then wait in the nearest pub for instruction from their section editor to go out and follow a lead, in some cases via a hotline directly to the bar. The later the instruction came, the better the journalist had to be at operating under the influence. Often, the meeting with the contact would also take place in a bar, pub or restaurant, where more alcohol was consumed. This is rare today because the endless, unquenchable thirst of the internet for more copy means that journalists barely have time to make a phone call, never mind leave their desks.
This may be better for their livers, but it also contributes to the phenomenon of churnalism, where press releases, stories fed by publicity agents and other second-hand news is bashed out, uncritically, by reporters with no time to dig any deeper. As you might imagine, the things people tell you at the end of a long boozy lunch are generally a lot more interesting than the stuff a media department sends out on behalf of its clients.
4. They are biased.
This accusation is probably most common in relation to political journalism. It was constantly said, for example, that the media were biased against the last president of the US. This is a misconception based on the fact that journalists are trained to think about their audience, often as a single individual, and cater to their specific interests and perspectives. This is the all-important filter, through which all their material is passed. In the context of print: will this interest my reader? Will this surprise them? Will this match their perspective? Will this challenge or outrage them?
Aiming to answer these questions will give each publication or channel continuity, in terms of the angle and, to some extent, the editorial agenda. That can make coverage somewhat predictable. However, this is not the same as an unfair, unjustified prejudice, which is how bias might best be defined.
5. They are vindictive and out to ruin lives.
It is fair to say that journalists are often combative and take pride in highlighting the faults and failings of others (in spite of suffering plenty of their own). In general though, this is directed at those who represent some harm to the interests of their audience, whether that be dissembling politicians, disappointing organisations or dishonest business people. This can be difficult for the targets of such criticism but also of benefit to the audience, who can move forward, enlightened and duly warned.
In a bewilderingly complex world, where change seems to be accelerating, we need professional information gatherers, trained to deliver timely, clear, succinct accounts more than ever. Let’s do our best to look at them for what they really are and make the most out of what they do.
By Little Bird