Monday, July 21, 2008

Raising journalism's game - the blog effect

With the arrival of new students, often international ones where journalism practised in their country of origin borders on government support or party-state interests, one of the biggest revelations for our trainee journalists is "attribution" and "objectivity and impartiality".

Many find it very difficult to shake what I might call the "blog effect", the inexorable rise in personal commentary.

Commentary in preference of attributed reportage didn't start with blogs, but it's become more common place amongst students substituting one legitimate form for another.

Couple of years back, one of my students libeled, in principle, a subject in her article.

Her own prejudices, I later discovered, had coloured her report about what it meant to be gay in the army.

She was from one of the African countries (not fair to id country, as her friends might then know who I'm talking about) where sexuality/gay is an incendiary topic.

And yes, it can be a hot topic elsewhere.

I informed her that in spite of hew views, she couldn't make what was an offensive remark in her copy.

She ooomed and aaamed, "but it's true, everyone knows that", she quipped.

"Aha" I chimed,"who's everyone?".

If you can attribute your own comments to a source that's one thing. You're a reporter you don't have the expert view to take the moral or superior high ground, that's for a priest or pundit to make. That's unless you believe you're qualified - a result of your expertise and often qualifications of sorts in the said area.

Her eyes lit up.

She had found a reason to attribute, mask her own thoughts by finding someone to articulate them for her.

Not a particular noble thought, journalism by subscription, but whilst professionals won't quite put it that way, they can more or less do the same.

"Ahh" I came back, "but even if you find someone to say what you feel, you have to ask whether it has caused offence past the mark of fair comment. Does it qualify as libel?"

A whole session on libel then followed, again.

By the time she'd rewritten, she'd exercised a satisfactory degree of objectivity, but the report had now skewed towards being partial.

"Have you called up the person in your report to ask them their views?", I asked.

"Should I?", she replied.

"Well you've made a point in your copy and the person on the end of that needs to have the opportunity to respond before you publish".

Back to Basics
Today, I'm meeting with an old friend and one of Africa's most respected journalists Mathatha Tsedu Editor-in-Chief of City Press in South Africa, Chairperson of The African Editors Forum and a Nieman Fellow (Harvard).
Mathatha was recently awarded a Lifetime achievement award and is on a fact finding tour of which I hope to learn more about, taking in the UK, US (Poynter) and Germany.

South Africa has an enviable tradition of robust journalism, but you get the feeling from exchanging thoughts with professional educators as I did at that there's some concern at the next generation.

I'm speculating, but that might describe Mathatha's trip. I'll find out.

If it is, then mixed with the expanding bubble of new media initiatives, blogs, video journalism, multimedia, etc, there appears to be a desire, a want, for a "lets get back to basics".

And that doesn't just refer to those across waters, but here on our own turfs.

It may be common sense but there's no substitute for the course attributes of delivering a story that works, not because it's a good read, a skill in itself, but because, we've been fair and justified in what we've written.

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