Being a former journalist can sometimes feel like a lifetime affliction. It is impossible to go through one’s day casually consuming the output of the news media without constant irritations, large and small.
In the past 24 hours, two examples of crimes against communications have stuck in my craw. Both are instances that a person not brought up in a newsroom in the “good old days” would hardly have noticed. Exhibit A; an ABC radio referring to someone as an “original founder”. Is there any other kind? And exhibit B, a newspaper article referring to a player “nearly” joining another football club. Wrong. He almost joined them. Near refers to physical proximity which makes nearly.
Most people would regard these gripes as pedantry of the highest order, but I can’t help it. Tautologies and imprecise language were matters for which I was regularly verbally lashed as a journalistic baby at the hands of crusty sub-editors, usually late at night in smoky newsrooms.
But they are incidents that point to a deeper malaise. For a start, the offending journalists clearly don’t have an old hand metaphorically looking over their collective shoulder. (In truth, it was usually the young pup, summoned to appear before the chief sub, who was doing the “looking over the shoulder” as their work was systematically dissected and rearranged by the master before their humble eyes).
Where have they gone, these wise heads? Cost cut out of the industry, mostly.
In part, they have been swept away by the technological changes that have allowed economies in the news production processes and simultaneously made redundant some of the imperative that drove tight discipline. Tautologies were verboten because space was scarce. There was only so much paper available to be printed on every night, and most of that was lined off to accommodate ads.
Maximising the amount of information was the name of the game, and sloppy wordsmithing or ambiguity was wasteful. But in cyber space, the physical limits are gone.
With them have gone a deeper discipline, however, and that is at the heart of the media malaise that so many of us lament. The loss of a clear distinction between comment and news reporting is one most glaring example.
News reporting used to be pretty straight up and down — “Just the facts, ma’am” and all that. If you are confronted with a need to explain who, what, how, where and when in 50 words or less, you become pretty good at telling a story straight.
But if you are not trained to write that way, and are encouraged by a media environment where some outlets define campaigning journalism as being partisan journalism, it is all too easy to slip into indiscipline.
Another recent example: in the day after the announcement by the Prime Minister that the Government would pursue a pokie reform policy different from that agreed with Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, barely one newspaper simply described the actual policy announced. Every paper focused on the reactions of stakeholders and/or journalists’ interpretations of the implications for the Government, with the explanation of the policy too often described only by implication.
For sufferers of over-sensitivity to poor journalism, there is more bad news. This is not a temporary phenomenon, it is a permanent change. Journalism, as we grew up understanding the term, is no more. People calling themselves journalists are in the broader content industry, which is why the disgraceful behaviour so graphically described in the UK Leveson media inquiry hearings has been allowed to happen.
Jude Law’s private conduct is not news just because it is dug out and published in newspapers. It is content the public wants, so those people producing it are rewarded. Consequently, many news outlets have systematically reinvented themselves to produce that content. Included in that reinvention is the training of people who, while they might call themselves journalists, are taught to perfect practices that run against the grain of every principle that defined what journalism used to be.
Get used to it. And in particular, remember: when you are developing a media campaign for your own business, you need to think carefully about those to whom you talk.
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