RECENT MUSINGS ON JOURNALISM…
speech to the Inaugural Global Media Freedom Conference in London, July 2019
speech to journalism students at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, August 2019
SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ON JOURNALISM…
The notion of objective reporting is seen by many as out of fashion and out of date. Fine in theory, but (they argue) in the real world it is either impossible to achieve or 'too bloody dull'.
It is often parodied as a recitation of facts devoid of context or colour, leading to 'he said/she said' stories that list the views of the usual suspects on a topic but leave the reader, listener or viewer none the wiser about who's right and who's wrong. The reporter responsible for such stories is employing the 'view from nowhere', pretending they neither know nor care about the matters they are reciting.
That is certainly a problem, and we see plenty of examples of it. But that's not objective journalism, that's just bad journalism. Anyone who simply collects facts and sets them down is not a reporter. That's not journalism, it's stenography.
It has always been the case that reporters need to sift through facts, weigh them up, make editorial judgements about their relative strength and importance, and then present them in a way that illuminates the truth of a matter. It's not called 'editorial' content for nothing.
This process of making editorial judgements about facts is fundamental to great journalism. It explains why a program like Four Corners can expose what is going on inside the greyhound racing industry or 7-11 stores without in any way compromising its commitment to objective journalism. Or why 7.30 can deliver a series of stories exposing underpayment and exploitation of postal workers. The journalism is passionate, compelling and influential. It also happens to be in the best tradition of objective journalism.
It doesn't involve abandoning a commitment to impartiality and following your own whims and preoccupations. Nor does it involve handing out undigested facts by the truckload and leaving a bewildered audience to try and make sense of it.
What it does involve is gathering information without fear or favour, weighing and assessing that information and then reaching a conclusion based on the evidence. It involves a conscious and disciplined process where the evidence is not misrepresented or suppressed if it doesn't suit a preconceived opinion. A process where the reporter examines and challenges his or her own assumptions and blind spots as well as everyone else's.
Conclusions arrived at using this process are all the stronger for it. The passion and purpose that drives good journalism comes from the facts and not from rhetoric, spin or sophistry.
The key here is the tools a reporter uses in this process of weighing the evidence. You don’t rely on your own prejudices and preconceptions, picking the facts that support your opinion and ignoring the ones that don't. Instead, you try to set aside your own views and instead be led by the facts, by what you uncover as you turn over an issue and examine all sides.
I say 'try' deliberately, as this kind of work is hard. Being objective as a reporter is not a state of perfection like sainthood. It is a discipline. Like so many important skills, it takes constant practice and can always be improved. But at its best it means that the passion and power of what is produced is driven by the facts we uncover, not by the personal views we hold.
After all, we expect scientists to examine the evidence on issues like climate change or cancer research, and reach conclusions based on rigorous and professional judgements rather than their opinions or their hunches. We expect a similar objectivity from our judicial system, from our police and from many other professionals who serve the public. I haven't heard too many calls for us to accept, for example, that judges will always have their own views on matters and so they might as well just decide cases based on their own opinions rather than the evidence. We know they are fallible human beings like the rest of us, but we ask them to do their best to set their views aside and do their job.
We should ask no less of reporters. It is difficult and we should continue to expect failures along the way. But in this information rich, connected world, it has never been more important. We are assailed on all sides by information presented to us by those with hidden agendas, causes to push and products to sell. To wade into the ocean of digital information these days is to feel manipulated, pressured and overwhelmed by 'facts' that have been twisted and misrepresented to suit someone else's opinion. What we need are at least some people who are trying to cut through the manipulation and the spin and let the facts do the talking.
Further thoughts on journalism: