Better journalism: “We have to learn directly from news consumers through experiments”

There’s an interesting confluence of work on journalism in the digital age today. This morning I’m at conference in Dublin on the importance of Diversity in the Media (organised by the Labour MEP Nessa Childers), and at the same time Blair Jenkins’s Better Journalism in the Digital Age, is published by the Carnegie Foundation across the water.

Jenkins – with whom I shared a platform at the Cleraun Media Conference last November – is highly conscious of the current controversies surrounding both tabloid and broadsheet journalism in Britain, which currently are being highlighted sometimes in intense detail by the Leveson Inquiry.

He notes in particular that the digital age is finally bringing a degree of transparency in the way journalism (as well as government) is done:

News brands will need to have a reputation for reliability in order for people to trust their reporting. The tendency in society towards greater disclosure and transparency will impact on the news media also. They will be held much more firmly to account. There is likely to be less tolerance of deception and other devices where there is not demonstrably a clear public interest.

Quite so. In a piece published in the Belfast Telegraph over the weekend, Malachi O’Doherty both acknowledges this problem but also highlights the uneven fight many good journalists in speaking truth to power:

We are going through a period of national breast-beating about what a sorry pass we have come to as a society and one of the targets of our moral panic is that homogeneous horror, ‘The Media’. What is to be done about it?

Note how that simple plural verb is so often spoken of as if it describes a single, appalling reality. There is no single thing called ‘The Media’; there are just many newspapers and magazines and broadcast outlets and blogs and thousands upon thousands of people working through them.

And there are the thousands more Press officers and communications directorates, which exist to serve the newspapers and broadcasters and magazines and blogs.

Yet, over and over again, it is spoken of as if it is a definable conspiracy of a morally dysfunctional few, who want nothing more than to get their hands into somebody’s underwear drawer.

Jenkins is mindful of this ‘race to the bottom’ meme that has accompanied the outing of dodgy practices in the #Hackgate scandals. In fact he pinpoints the beginning of this decline in standards in the transition from print to television news. A lead that remains convincing to this day, with Print’s decline accelerating in comparison to almost every other medium:

And the state of the local press (where real decentralised knowledge was once held) is declining even more alarmingly:

In a period of rapid decline it is hardly surprising that standards are falling rapidly. Jenkins argues that the voluntary agreements in place in Britain have been weak on setting out aspirational ambitions. He looks to both the US and Ireland for correctives, not least the Society of Professional Journalists laconic code of ethics:

• Seek truth and report it
• Minimize harm
• Act independently
• Be accountable

But of these he further notes:

Under the First Amendment to the US constitution, it is not possible to have legally binding rules for news media beyond the general provisions of criminal and civil law that apply to society as a whole. There is a definite sense in the SPJ code of journalists themselves actively trying to encourage and advocate high standards of personal professional conduct. It may be precisely because any form of mandatory regulation is constitutionally impossible that journalists have striven to adopt and uphold higher levels of editorial and ethical behaviour. [emphasis added]

He then goes on:

In the UK, the current press guidelines on conduct – set out in the Editors’ Code of Practice, approved by the Press Complaints Commission deal mainly with the things you should not do, rather than the things that you should. The PCC code focuses on the actions that are impermissible or inadvisable, rather than conveying any sense of mission which is inspirational.

By comparison, the Irish Code of Practice is a superior document. For one thing, it is a statement of principles rather than just a series of clauses. It is more positive than negative in its guidance highlighting what you should do, rather than what you should avoid doing. While the UK code reads like a grudging and minimalist contract, the Irish document reads more like a genuine series of commitments, representing a professional manifesto.

Jenkins doesn’t say too much about the Internet although he is rather dismissive about the poor take up of new techniques by the mainstream (who in the UK and Ireland by and large still continue to win the war for scale), in particular data journalism and new visualation techniques:

We have to learn directly from news consumers through experiments. There is not enough adding of value, using the extra capacity and the extra creativity of the internet.

There are now tremendous tools at our disposal for communicating information, including how we visualise and present complicated data. More of these data visualisation tools should be being used more of the time for the more complicated issues and for policy explanation.

Our emphasis should be on encouraging experimentation and collaboration in pursuit of successful innovation.

All of this is true. Back in 2005, I guested with a five other Irish bloggers from the time (I think only two of us still blog on a regular basis) on David McWilliams’s day time programme. John Ihle I think it was said that within five to ten years there would be difference between bloggers and journalists. What he meant was we would all be sitting on the same platform, not necessarily doing the same thing.

Malachi O’Doherty expresses well the fear of many journalists, who are increasingly being outflanked, outnumbered and outfought on a daily basis by an ever expanding army of spin doctors (highly respected former colleagues amongst them):

…imagine if we were not here, doing the noble and principled stuff we are proud of, doing the fun stuff, too. Could you imagine a world without us? Many have tried – the Stalins and Mugabes among them – and the sneering, superficial, self-important people who blame all the woes of society on ‘The Media’.

If there is to be a way out for journalism, it probably has something to do with aspiration (not least by raising their often jaundiced view of the differentiated views of the masses) and finding low cost ways to experiment with ‘new mediums’ (to free it from that bland misleading plural) fast becoming available to all of us, to as EM Forster once put to ‘only connect’.

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