Originally published in February 2004
PRINCIPLES in journalism, some might say, have never been the trade’s strongest point.
Others suggest that whatever there may have been were abandoned when the world turned tabloid.
Tony Harcup’s approach is encouraging, optimistic, inspiring even. Coming to his text as a trainee, a newcomer, it should be possible to feel lifted, to become more determined in one’s passion to tell others what is going on, to be a crusading guardian of democracy and to try to keep corporate excesses in check.
The reality of working in an under-resourced newsroom is quite different.
Reporters can find themselves tied to computer screens and telephones, ‘following up’ press releases if they’re lucky, merely rewriting them if they’re not.
Opportunities for ‘proper’ interviewing may be few and far between. Contacts with real people are limited to rapid ‘information checking’.
Check calls have changed too. The police and fire services run ‘voice banks’ – answering services where there is no chance to ask questions. The journalist gets what a duty inspector or press officer cares to throw to the avaricious news beast.
Hospitals no longer speak to reporters, even off the record, probably for reasons of ‘patient confidentiality’.
Sorry Tony, there’s no longer any point in trying to place a check call to a prison.
After about 4pm, the regional press office has probably left for the day, the Home Office isn’t interested unless you’re calling from a national or PA, and unless you have a personal contact whose keen to push something from the POA, then, the story has probably been and gone.
Some proprietors may give newspaper reporters time to develop stories this way, but pressure on journalists’ wages and editors’ budgets suggest there are few who do.
In news agencies, the need is to sell an idea to the nationals, quickly, and then move on to the next money-making prospect.
Independent freelances may spend more time crafting a piece of work, but it’s their time and money and incentives for quality, rather than the ‘quick’n’dirty’ just are not there.
Broadcasting rarely ‘news gathers’; it follows – PA and press releases – with the need to fill space or airtime having a greater priority than journalistic ethics.
A select few who have reached ‘correspondent’ status in the BBC may have the luxury of spending time developing their own ideas and cultivating contacts, but the ants around them do not; they are too busy trying to work out how to file for Radios 1, 4, 5 and local stations, plus News 24, put a package together for ‘The One’ (o’clock) TV bulletin while keeping an eye on what is happening around them.
Too often, style comes before content. Online stories have to be written with headlines that have fewer than 33 characters – and newspaper critics wonder why words such as ‘probe’ and ‘scam’ appear so often.
A nice idea
Tony’s designer or commissioning editor could have had a similar background.
Principles and practice start out together, side by side, in columns; a nice idea, but it doesn’t quite work.
Sidebars in newspapers and magazines are often read before the longer pieces they accompany, simply because they are shorter.
But, when two sections seem equally long and the bottom of column two leads to the top of column four, and the bottom of one to the top of three, even with a light tint background and serif and sans faces, the book becomes difficult to read.
Coming to Principles and Practice as an aging, even cynical, jobbing freelance journalist, the reaction was ‘could it really be that good?’
Broadcasting has become a ‘news factory’, processing the raw material it buys in or steals as quickly and cheaply as it can. Newspapers are little better.
Does one national newspaper reporter, cited by name, really live up to these standards when he has three by-lines in one day’s paper? Or is he simply topping-and-tailing PA copy like everyone else?
Perhaps because journalists are embarrassed if they’re asked about pay and conditions, we tend to put on brave faces and try to convince ourselves that we’re in the right jobs.
Journalism; principles and practice is not a reference book, but it is a good primer. It’s probably not for the ageing cynic trying to recover the optimism of adolescence.
Journalism: Principles and Practice, Tony Harcup, Sage, 2004, ISBN 0-7619-7499-7
Originally written for (the now defunct) Global Journalism Review
© copyright 2004 Adam Christie,
All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission.