Accusing young journalists of laziness? That’s just lazy journalism

When were the good old days?

I’d hazard a guess that – from an employment point of view – they probably come in the first few years of your working life.

If I’m right, mine would have involved some great craic, some great stories and some great lessons learned.

But it’s not as simple as that.

My first few years in journalism were also characterised by the time to pursue stories in newsrooms which were expanding rather than contracting.

And I remember some other things.

Long lunch hours down the pub. Sub-editors stringing out poorly-designed pages for hours on end. Ancient reporters whose intros mangled the English language. Not to mention a laissez faire approach to ethics.

I worked reasonably hard at times. But I also found time to drive up to Mid Wales on a Friday afternoon to see my girlfriend (now wife) at uni while I should have been visiting contacts in Mid Devon.

So I’m always wary of claims that there was once some golden age of journalism.

As I’ve said before, I am in absolutely no doubt that the reporters of today work harder than I ever had to. 

With web targets bearing down on them on an hourly basis, the expectation that storytelling will involve video and live-blogging, information overload and heightened public demands, it’s no wonder they can feel stressed.

They work long hours, battling to keep the plates of public service journalism and web-friendly content spinning.

So it was with a growing sense of anger that I read a rose-tinted paean of praise to those so-called good old days in Press Gazette.

The writer spoke of lazy, poorly-trained journalists cutting corners and ignoring basic principles of verification.

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As someone who – unlike the writer – still spends time in newsrooms and who makes his main living training the journalists of the future, I bristled at a piece which to me was the very epitome of lazy journalism.

 

It came on a day when my patience was tested first by an over-the-top, tired piece on so-called clickbait  and the later news that the white elephant regulator Impress had been officially approved by a Government recognition panel .

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It came on a day when I and my colleagues had as usual put our heart and soul into ensuring that dozens of students are equipped with the skills, attitudes and confidence to shine in the media sector.

And it came on a day that saw one of my second year students help her neighbours out of their house after their shed caught fire – before live-tweeting the incident and getting a great story with great pictures online.

 

We know that these would-be media practitioners need to develop greater curiosity and ambition, to grow in resilience and resourcefulness as they look for stories to tell, and to keep on improving.

But we are sending them out into the world with technical skills and digital instincts beyond anything I and my colleagues could have dreamed of in those lazy, hazy 1980s days.

In fact, we’d probably have gone on strike if we’d been asked to do a fraction of what the modern reporter takes in his or her stride every day.

So by all means acknowledge an industry facing intense challenges which could threaten journalism that matters.

By all means rail against the poverty of imagination of newspaper companies cutting away at the flesh of our industry.

But have the humility to accept that there may be new approaches to storytelling.

And if you’re going to tell young journalists that they’re lazy, have the guts to do it to their faces.

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Don’t Press the nuclear button of state regulation

I’ve spent most of my life trying to explain the difference between regional and (most) national journalism.

When your profession is permanently in the relegation zone of Britain’s most trusted groups of people, you have to.

I used to play badminton with a chief probation officer who regularly greeted me as ‘the vulture of the press.’ It was amusing the first couple of times. Not so much the 200th.

I sum it up like this. I spent two decades as a journalist in Bath, a city of 100,000 people that’s really a giant village.

If I strolled into the city centre, there was a pretty good chance I’d bump into someone I’d written about over the years. And it was my proud belief that I could look them in the eye and defend every word.

That’s an accountability which most tabloid journalists don’t have. And I’m sorry for them.

That sort of relationship, that place in a community, is what makes regional journalism so precious, and so important.

The contrast was clear at a meeting hosted by the press regulator Ipso in Birmingham last month.

On the panel was the boss of that city’s biggest news website, Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves.

Also there was a chap from the pressure group Hacked Off. Understandably, he raised the case of one of Ipso’s highest-profile rulings: the one on the Sun’s claims that the Queen backed Brexit.

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He pointed to the comment by Sun editor Tony Gallagher that he would do it all again tomorrow as evidence that Ipso – the regulator set up by the media industry – was a toothless waste of time.

Later in the meeting, Marc put another view: he confessed that he was ‘terrified’ of Ipso.

You might think, well he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But I believe him. And I believe him when he says that the editor’s code enforced by Ipso is at the heart of virtually daily conversations about how to tackle stories in his newsroom.

And it’s not just him.

That code was my bible, too.

And when Ipso strikes, it is humiliatingly and mortifyingly painful.

Talk to the Derby Telegraph about the ruling that savaged its use of a picture of a girl being treated at an accident scene .

Ask the Lincolnshire Echo about being at the wrong end of a far-reaching, landmark ruling over naming dead people.

You wouldn’t catch the editors of those papers going on the radio to say they’d do it all again.

Instead, the shock wave of an adverse Ipso ruling involves retraining, extra checks, new policies – and hairshirt wearing.

That code is respected, checked and pored over by thousands of regional journalists.

No one has any serious quibble with it, including organisations that choose not to be regulated by Ipso.

The new kid in town regulator Impress – funded by a trust linked to Max Mosley and representing just a few dozen titles, mostly hyperlocals – wants to be Britain’s official press watchdog.

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But the organisation which puts its case to the spookily-named Press Recognition Panel on Tuesday has come up with a code which it could be argued is weaker than Ipso’s.

The PRP, which has already spent more than £1m of public money doing nothing, was set up in the wake of the Leveson Report.

Titles that are part of the warp and weft of their communities face the prospect of being punished for the sins of others

The behaviour laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry amounted to journalism’s darkest hour. But that behaviour had nothing to do with the regional media.

And yet, now, titles that are part of the warp and weft of their communities face the prospect of being punished for the sins of others.

If – and it’s a big if, bearing in mind that funding, and the fact that Ipso represents 30 times as many titles – Impress is approved by the PRP on Tuesday, we are at the top of a very slippery slope.

The next stage is the Government’s delayed decision over the Crime and Courts Act, which if implemented would mean titles not part of the Impress regime having to pay the legal costs of complainants who sued them and lost.

A situation even more unprecedented that having government-sponsored regulation of the nation’s press for the first time since the 17th century.

Ipso isn’t perfect.

I agree with its charismatic chairman Sir Alan Moses that finding a way to regulate offensive opinions is incredibly difficult, and I know this is the sort of thing that keeps him awake at night.

His organisation’s view is that Katie Hopkins calling refugees locusts and the odious Kelvin Mackenzie attacking Fatima Manji for wearing a habib while reporting a terrorist attack represent the price we pay for freedom of speech.

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And it’s a view supported by media guru Roy Greenslade .

I’m not so sure. I’d like to see Ipso taking a stand against the sort of hate journalism that spreads prejudice, ignorance and poison, and which is currently being played out over the alleged age of refugees.

 

Having said that, Ipso is in there, sleeves rolled up, tackling this sort of circle-squaring moral minefield, now. And it’s interpreting a code of conduct that I believe is above reproach. Plus, it’s just been given a largely clean bill of health by an external review.

It is operating the toughest regulation regime – with the ordering of page one corrections and the power to fine – that this country’s media has seen in centuries.

I’d like to see more people complain, and I’d like to see some of the nationals treat it with more respect, and to stop bringing the case against state-sponsored regulation into disrepute through hyperbole.

But that slippery slope is a real one.

And I can’t see that democracy and community life are going to be served by imposing a white elephant regulation system in place of one that works for the news media that I care about.

A new kind of regulation might seem like a breath of fresh air.

But it actually risks suffocating a real force for good in hundreds of communities around the country.

How to crowdsource ethically in times of tragedy

Another weekend – and another murder on the streets of Gloucestershire.

My friends at the Gloucestershire Live website have been kept incredibly busy by a weekend of grim crime.

One, I should assure the parents of our current and future students, that is not representative.  That lovely, peaceful lake on our campus is no mirage. This is a safe place to live.

But I digress.

Part of the coverage of any such tragedy is the identification of the victim, the painting a picture of someone who once had a full and vivid life.

My friends will be – gently – on the case.

I say gently partly because the press regulator Ipso has raised the bar when it comes to media identification of people who have just died, with a landmark ruling last year.

But also because last weekend, the Gloucestershire Live team were unfairly blamed for being too quick off the mark in approaching the friends and family of Camran Green after he was killed in Cheltenham.

In fact the approaches on Facebook had come from the regional news agency, SWNS.

Editor Jenny Eastwood made it clear – on Facebook, and in response to heavy criticism of her staff, that they had made no approaches to Camran’s family.

It’s worth saying that Gloucestershire Live did use the material which SWNS unearthed.

And I would have done the same.

What’s more, it would have been the best-read story on the site by a country mile.

It’s another illustration of my favourite – and most heavily used here – journalistic saying.

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People don’t tend to like seeing under the bonnet of journalism, don’t want to know what happens around the back of the scenery to ensure they get the stories they love to read.

Getting in touch with people who have witnessed or been touched by tragedy is one of the most difficult parts of journalism – ethically, emotionally and logistically.

Luckily, there is no shortage of advice.

This is is a great round-up from the last newsrewired conference while this has just been published by First Draft News.

They’re both very well worth a read, and provide some well-tested answers to the question I’ve posed in the headline.

The fact that crowdsourcing happens in public lifts that bonnet – and means the media have to be very careful. And thick-skinned.

I’ve seen some very witty replies to requests from Mail Online reporters for permission to use pictures.

And some people are just bluntly brilliant. When this was posted, The Sun came social media knocking.

 

And this was the reply.

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In the end, though, there’s a rule of thumb that I’ve always fallen back on when dealing with any kind of potentially intrusive coverage.

It’s a set of questions that I’ve been urging my students to keep in mind at all times.

How would I feel if this was happening to me? How would I want to be approached? How would I feel if my mum/sister/best friend received this Facebook message?

If you ask those questions honestly and with emotional intelligence, I don’t think you can go far wrong.