‘Old journalism’ standards that shouldn’t die

Most of my posts on this blog focus on new media, changing content, and embracing interaction with readers. I do that because I really believe those are vital as journalism evolves.

However, I think there’s much about so-called “old  journalism” that should be retained as journalism evolves. I’m no newbie. I’m 42 years old, and I’ve been at this journalism game for 20 years.

To stretch a hackneyed metaphor, I think there’s a lot of bath water to get baled out, but there’s a lot of baby to be saved, too.  I don’t believe saving the best of the old as you add the new is impossible. At least, I hope not.

So here are  “old journalism” standards that I believe need to remain as journalism reinvents itself:

  • Accuracy: Journalism is nothing if it’s wrong. Journalists need to continue to check not just the facts of a story — but the context. I’ve started something on my beat that I find really worthwhile. Before I file every story, I fact check it like magazines do. I don’t give the source the story, but I go over every fact and every bit of context with each source. (An example: “You mentioned you have three biological children and two adopted sons. Is that how you want the relationship described in the story?” I’ll ask.)  So many times a reporter has the facts right, but the source — particularly a regular Joe not used to being interviewed — couldn’t quite envision how those words would look in print. For blogs, this fact-checking becomes part of the initial interview, rather than a follow-up call.  Accuracy becomes almost more important online because in 30 minutes your story or blog post can go literally around the world, and others may be linking and repeating what you wrote, mistakes and all.
  • Watchdog role: This is just the basis of what journalism should be in a Democracy. Reporters should be a check on government. They should be exposing duplicity. They should be doing the math and finding the mistakes. They should be looking at the original document and seeing if it jibes with the spin. How will we afford to do this in the future? That’s a challenge that I wish I knew the answer to. But I do know this. We must find a way because we can’t lose this.
  • Quoting regular folks: The best journalism relies on “real people,” not officials, not spokespeople, not flacks. I think part of the way you can judge a journalist is by how many regular folks he or she can reach quickly on deadline — how many “real people” are in the Rolodex, virtual or otherwise. Quoting the common man and woman is important because journalism isn’t public relations; it’s shouldn’t be just explaining the official view. The interactive Web can help journalists connect with more of these “real people.” It’s even more vital in the “new journalism” to expand this source list continually so readers are more engaged.
  • Careful editing: I think careful editing is very important for news stories — whether online or in print for much of the reasons I brought up above about how stories and posts can go viral on the Web. Is it possible for every blog post to go through an assigning editor, rim editor and slot editor before it gets posts? Probably not in most newsrooms. Blogs need to be immediate, so forgoing the normal editing process may be part of a necessary trade-off for speed. Perhaps as blogging at news organizations evolves, we can figure out a way to edit more quickly? I guess I wouldn’t let a reporter blog whom I didn’t trust to be accurate and fair. I also think blogging is understood to be an immediate medium, so it’s OK if it reads as less polished than an enterprise piece that took months of work. With that said, bloggers still should have oversight.  I edited a reporter who blogged for two years, and I’d read his posts pretty much in real time, just not before they went active. I could spot a typo or make suggestions, and the flexibility of the Web allows quick fixing.
  • Quality: The Web is a free-flowing place in many ways, and it’s a place where people can experiment with video and podcasts and telling stories different ways. That’s all good, but to last journalism still needs quality. What does that mean? To me, that means whatever medium you’re using, you should strive to do the best work.  Readers initially might be attracted to a new feature — videos, podcasts, slide shows,  etc. But as these proliferate, readers won’t gravitate to the ones poorly done. Technorati, the authority-ranking search engine, estimates that bloggers create close to 1 million posts daily. With so many options for readers, you have to be good to expect anyone to read you and keep reading you.
  • Impartiality: I like the term impartiality better than objectivity because I’m not sure anyone — journalist or not — can really be completely objective. We are all shaped by our experiences and this impacts our judgment, understanding, beliefs both consciously and subconsciously. However, we can all strive to be impartial — which to me means not using journalism to further your own agenda or beliefs. It means presenting not just two sides, but fives sides if there are five. It means giving voice to each of those sides and to the gray areas between them. Bloggers have more liberty to express opinion, and I think that’s fine as long as they aren’t taking sides in a news story they are writing about. It’s fine tight-rope to walk, but I think the Web gives readers a chance to make their own decisions because they can read the actual report or the full statement from the mayor or the news release instead of just relying on a journalist’s interpretation.

Gina

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13 thoughts on “‘Old journalism’ standards that shouldn’t die

  1. Gina,

    Fantastic post. There are essentials that define what we do as journalists and storytellers that must endure, no matter what medium we use to get the word out. Your post echoes a post I put up on my site today; a WUSA-TV newser who quit…and based his decision on the basics you outline–that the drive to do digital and to be ahead of the curve on social media, in his view, was coming at the cost of the things that define us as reporters.

    Great stuff.

    Mark

  2. Mark,

    Thanks. I do think the new can co-exist with the old — and I think it has to. Giving readers bells and whistles of new media without substance won’t solve the crisis in the newspaper industry.

    – Gina

  3. Hi Gina,
    While I agree with most of your article and wish that more journos adhered to those rules, I’d like to challenge your rule about quoting “regular folks” (such an American expression :-) ). Of course you need to keep in contact with “normal people” so as not to be too embedded in the ivory tower of media, but I’m not so sure about asking Average Joe his opinion on this, that or the other for a piece in the paper. What for? All too often, when “average Joe” is quoted in papers or interviewed on TV/radio, all it amounts to is populist nonsense. (The whole awful business with Joe the Plumber springs to mind…).

    My other issue is the good old rule about always quoting two or more (opposing) sources. I find that more and more journalists in almost all types of media seem to forget this and I must say that it’s sorely missed!

    Hats off to your blog and its most honourable purpose!

  4. @Nene

    Well, Joe the Plumber … I wouldn’t quite call him a “regular Joe” despite his name (which wasn’t really his name.) He was pretty much in my mind a plant by a particular party to make a particular point.

    And I do agree that just talking to “average Joes” could make for shallow coverage. I certainly wouldn’t want to read a story about the toxic mortgage crisis, for example, that quoted only “regular Joes” because they likely wouldn’t understand it. (Who really does?) That type story begs for experts, and a variety of them to make the issues clear — or at least more clear.

    However, I would love to hear from homeowners who had to foreclose in light of the crisis — and understand how they got in that spot.

    Another example: If you cover education, and you only quote the schools superintendent and the school board members, you get a very limited view of what’s going on in the schools. You get spin.

    They’re not going to tell you that the “new math” program that the district officials touted so proudly makes it tough for first-graders to understand the concept of adding.

    Or that ninth-graders have no time in their schedule for lunch because they’re too busy taking advanced-placement classes to help them get into the best colleges.

    Talk to parents, and you’ll find that out in a hurry.

    Journalism to me is at its best when there’s a balance between quoting the officials — and the stakeholders, who in many cases are regular folks.

    But I agree that whenever journalists quote anyone, they should strive to find people who know enough about the issue to have an opinion worth repeating. Good point.

    – Gina

  5. Great post, Gina. If I may add one point, which Nene briefly touched on. In my newsroom experience, the process of seeking out sources to provide opposing viewpoints is often carried out as an end unto itself. In other words, reporters are content to insert quotes that conflict with each other as if they’ve provided a public service. In fact, they haven’t.

    What reporters should be doing is pressing sources to explain their positions and defend them against contradictions point-by-point. THAT would be illuminating and valuable. But to do this requires an innate inquisitiveness which, sadly, a lot of journalists don’t have. Instead, filing the article becomes an end unto itself.

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  7. @Gina > why I brought up Joe the Plumber was to emphasize how “Average Joe” can and will be misused to serve just about any purpose. @ your point about parents, they are not really “average joes” in that situation, are they? They are more like users or experts? Or, re the below, an opposing POW to that of the teachers’.

    @Anthony > you’re absolutely right. Just leaving two (opposing) points of view standing there is useless, you need to let them get at each other’s arguments. That is what I meant in my comment, but I could definitely have clarified it better.

    Good and very necessary debate!

  8. @Anthony Salveggi

    Very good point — I agree. Just throwing two points out there without having the two — or more — sides defend them is, well, pointless.

    I think it’s the casualty of laziness often.

    – Gina

  9. @Nene

    I see what you were saying about Joe the Plumber. Do get your point.

    As far as parents being the experts, I love your idea to view it that way. You’re right — they are truly the experts, but I don’t think most journalists would see it that way or describe them as such.

    In my experience, many education stories (and others, but I’m picking on education today) lack these “experts” and rely too heavily on the official voice. When I edited reporters, my biggest struggle was to get them to quote a greater variety of voices in a story. I think some reporters tend to go to the same people again and again because they have a relationship with these sources, and, quite frankly, it’s easier.

    I’ve ready many government, education, political stories that quoted just paid government leaders; I’ve read seldom that truly treated the stakeholders as experts. That I think is a shame.

    Thanks for expanding the discussion. Your insightful comments have really made me think.

    – Gina

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