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19 June 2018

What a Journalist Isn't

I'm sick and tired of the abuse journalists are getting at the moment. They don't deserve it, at least real journalists don't - but that's the problem.

The title has become devalued, muddy, imprecise because basically anyone with a keyboard and a wifi connection can call themselves a journalist. Is it any wonder the punters have become confused?

Rather than trying to define what a journalist is, it's probably more useful to start by making clear what a journalist isn't.

A controversialist is not a journalist. This is the biggest issue at the moment. Reporting is expensive. Chasing fire engines, or going to the press bench of a Court, costs money and isn't very sexy. Local reporting has been cut back to the bone, and with the endless pages of the infinet to fill it's much easier to employ an egotist with an opinion (real or feigned) and a reasonable grasp of writing.

Get them to say something outrageous, and watch those social media notifications spike.

Journalists don't have opinions. Actually, of course, they do; but a professional leaves those opinions at home when reporting and does the best time and resources allow in relaying a wide range of opinions in the most effective way they can. Making an interviewee sound good, even if their opinion is very different from your own, is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job. When you've actually met and interviewed the person, of course, because ...

Journalists don't cut and paste. A news release is a tip off that a story exists, not a story in itself. The most interesting quotes come from interviewing around the release, not simply repurposing the content of a pre-prepared statement.

Just try speaking the quote in the release aloud. Chances are that particular sequence of words could never be uttered by an animate human being, ever. Too many "quotes" have been drafted, revised, amended, approved by a committee and finally given a gloss by a publicist. On which point ...

Journalists are not employed to speak on behalf of organisations .. especially in the public sector. A lot of hacked-off former hacks have ended up as PRs for councils, police and other public bodies, effectively writing the same stories they always have, but then syndicating them for the actual media outlets to cut and paste, as in the par above.

It's possible to argue that there is a public benefit in a well written version of the story originating from the original source, if the reality of the marketplace is that it's going to be recycled without scrutiny anyway. The difficulty comes when such "comms professionals" become defensive or obstructive when external journalists try to probe beyond the statement, query assertions or try to get to question the actual decision makers directly.

I have a simple rule in training journalists. I tell them they are an insignificant worker ant in the edifice of news, and their job is to minimise their own personality in their reporting. I ban the word "I" from copy, except in direct quotes. No-one cares what you think.

The job of a reporter is to hold power to account by asking the questions their listener, viewer or reader would want to know the answer to. That's the end of it.

A journalist is tenacious in probing for answers, but is never tedious by way of haranguing an interviewee. Trust the audience; the punters are a lot more intelligent than we often give them credit for, a lying bore or a charlatan will come over as such if questioned directly and politely.

Tomorrow morning, a few hundred tired souls across the UK will haul themselves out of bed before dawn to deliver the best possible breakfast radio news they can, serving communities the length and breadth of the UK. They're not well paid. I'd challenge you to name more than a handful, they're not famous.

They do it because it matters. Local journalism matters in all its guises, but it's swamped and drowned out by the noise of the controversialists.

Wake up. They're not journalists, whatever they call themselves. Remember that.





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