Thu, 09 Feb 2012 1:15p.m.
By James Murray
As a journalism student about four years ago, I was fortunate enough to see veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk deliver a talk at AUT University.
He had a very keen crowd in the palm of his hand as he told his many tales of daring, he is a rare breed of journalist, prepared to sacrifice great swathes of his life to tell the modern world’s most important story.
Feeling a little embarrassed at my own slender contributions to the world of news, I asked Mr Fisk what young aspiring journalists should do to ensure journalism remained worthwhile and ethical rather than descend into inanity and corruption as witnessed at the Leveson Inquiry.
His answer was unequivocal – you need a good editor. Someone who can protect your risky and expensive work from those with ulterior motives to cut costs and reduce newspapers to rewrites of X Factor press releases.
My mind was set, I had already enjoyed working as the editor of the student newspaper, Te Waha Nui, and now knew this was the job for me.
About half a year later I was lucky enough to end up as the chief editor of this website, and suddenly that wish was a reality.
What was the reality like?
I did indeed spend time protecting my best writers from other rigours. Not so much from owners or news executives who were begging me to make them dumb down, but from the financial realities that currently affect most newsrooms.
There is a growing mass of news to report and the public have a greater appetite for it, but, conversely, in many places there are fewer people doing so in a professional manner.
Good journalism takes time and giving the best journalists that time means organising and running a fluid team that’s capable of bending at one place where another place needs support.
I also came into this job at a time where the mainstream media is not necessarily the darling of the public. The public’s relationship with the fourth estate is more similar to their relationship with the Government these days. Information is power, and unfortunately for the majority of hard working journalists a few major organisations abused that power.
The public may be outraged at the behaviour of UK tabloid journalists, but I promise you their ire is at least matched by every reporter who spends his time working hard to convey the truth ethically.
Ethical decisions came up far more often in this job than I expected. I hope I gave them my all by considering my actions carefully and talking with more experienced staff here at 3 News.
I didn’t always make the right decision. My lowest point as an editor came after I published images that many would consider private of a reasonably well known person. It was a decision I made under considerable time pressure that I am ashamed of today. I removed the images and apologised.
And herein lies one of the major problems with journalism ethics. Media power is exercised by people just like you, who make mistakes, who have bad days and good days. When we make mistakes though, they can affect people’s lives profoundly. We take that responsibility very seriously, but we could be better at admitting and rectifying our mistakes.
Is it enough for a newspaper to call a man a sex offender on page one and then retract that news on page 10? Is it ok for me to get traffic from an unethical decision, and then retract that decision at a time when less people will see it? Obviously not, as a trade we must be more accountable to people and more willing to accept our errors.
The journalist who makes a hard ethical decision, but is then able to explain the valid reasoning behind that decision is an extremely valuable part of any news team. Codes of conduct and journalist licenses have been suggested as ways of regulating the press... these may have some effect, but not as much as ensuring those who make editorial decisions have the ability to make and explain ethical decisions in the first place.
We also face criticism as to the quality of our product. Something that increases as the number of varying and specialised news outlets increase online. The public have a much wider choice of news provider nowadays and this allows them at best to pick the cream of journalistic endeavour and at worst to languish in sites which just confirm, and never challenge, a prejudiced point of view.
This is a good thing, it keeps mainstream media on its toes. We know we need to be consistently better.
Anyone who fronts to the public and isn’t just handing out free candy, is going to have to battle with all sorts of differing viewpoints as to the quality of their service. Many people misunderstand the process of journalism and the motives of journalists. Letting people see more of the way we operate has started to help this, but has also exposed some of the harsher aspects of our job.
A death knock looks bad to the naked eye, although most experienced reporters can tell you stories of how people have found some comfort from talking publicly about a loved one.
A look at the way people operate in the more cerebral areas of the internet – Wikipedia, Reddit can also point the way for journalists in the future. Strong referencing and allowing the public access to raw data for their own analysis is an essential tool of the reporter looking to build trust with an audience.
But it’s important to remember that what journalists are really here to do is report stories.
This is an area that is also misunderstood. It’s all too easy I guess for a story to stray so far from fact that the journalist has not really said anything at all.
This is a good example.
But when done properly, a well crafted story conveys much more than a list of dispassionate facts. We all gravitate towards stories as a way of understanding the world, when events are portrayed to us in this way with skill we not only take on board the information but also gain a fraction more empathy for the people living through the event.
If I was to write down the numbers of people killed during the holocaust in German concentration camps you would of course experience a feeling of extreme sadness, but when BBC reporter Richard Dimbleby describes the horror of entering the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 with such human eloquence, those numbers spring to life. It’s the most human way to understand.
Knowing what makes a story, how to angle it, how to expand it and then tell it, is the real skill here. A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me that the best journalists are not the ones who can nail a live cross, write fifty live updates in ten minutes or cut back a 400 word story to 300 against deadline (although these are obviously very important skills), they are the people who really understand what a story is, where to find the story and how to tell it.
So in that vein here is a good story to round off with, unfortunately I have stolen it from a personal hero – ex-BBC Political Correspondent and ex-editor of The Independent Andrew Marr.
In 1996 Marr was made editor of The Independent, then a relative newcomer to the British press which had been lauded for its unbiased stance on issues and bold design and layout. Unfortunately this had not translated into sales and Marr took on the job at a particularly perilous time.
The paper’s proprietor was Tony O’Reilly, a notorious Irishman fond of cost-cutting and wedged in the middle of a furious price battle with Britain’s more established broadsheets.
Marr’s tenure at the paper was short lived but innovative. He radically redesigned the paper to try and boost sales, organising stories via subject rather than news values. He also started the first “Letter From The Editor” and produced many alternative front pages that are viewed as classics of their time.
But things soon turned sour between O’Reilly and Marr and Marr was eventually sacked.
The rumours behind the sacking were either that he refused to implement a round of redundancies or that the paper’s other publisher David Montgomery had been strong-armed into sacking Marr by Tony Blair’s spin doctor supreme, Alastair Campbell, after Marr insisted on running a story that compared Blair to previous Tory Prime Minister John Major.
Whatever the reason for his ousting, Marr had won the respect of his colleagues. When he packed up his belongings and went to leave his office his staff stood in unison and banged the tables loudly with their fists. It’s a Fleet Street mark of respect for an editor who has earned his stripes and is on his way out. The banging of the tables is a modern version of the crashing sound of the printing press that was used to make the same point in times gone past.
For Marr it was his proudest moment as a journalist.
On Friday I had my last day of work as the Chief Editor of this site, I am leaving to pursue some travel and ambitions in the UK.
So here’s an online bang of the table for my colleagues here at 3 News, you’ve made me feel welcome, been great friends and above all inspired me – thank you.