"We are not scientists. We can't isolate variables" - Paul Bradshaw on the egotism of journalism

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 30 March 2011
“Do we want to be Journalists with a capital J and bathe in the glory of our guild, or do we want to support journalism?” - Paul Bradshaw

This was one of the more provocative passages of Paul Bradshaw’s inaugural lecture at City University. Yesterday I posted my notes on what he said about news organisations and communities, and in this blog post I want to look at some structural problems he identified with journalism as a profession.

A big theme that came out of his talk around the practice of journalism was that it was shaped by culture, not some inherent inalienable quality.

Paul argued that specific acts of journalism can be done by different people at different times, and often by non-journalists. “There is no natural way to do journalism”, he said. Institutions and institutional cultures may have grown up, but there are one hundred different ways to tell a story. The inverted pyramid might be the most familiar, but it isn’t the only way.

Those cultures and institutions had nurtured a sense of ego amongst journalists. He suggested that not linking to sources, not reading the comments under your articles online, and repeatedly asking questions that mixed form with content like “Is blogging journalism?” were all the result of excessive ego in the news room. “If you don't want to engage with people”, he said, “write fiction”.

Paul went on to say that it is the height of arrogance to believe that journalism cannot be improved, and ignorance to think people can’t engage with complex stories and issues.

I thought there was an interesting split in the audience here. On the one hand, it was a bit like looking at an animated Twitter parade of people that I follow because they tweet about journalism. I don’t think that a lot of what Paul said can have been news to them. In particular, for those of us from The Guardian, our editor’s take on the “mutualisation” of journalism echoes a similar theme:

“I think journalists have to ask themselves whether they really are the only figures of authority and whether they know more in all circumstances than their readers, or whether we can adopt a more, slightly more humble approach and say well, we do know things and we do have certain skills but out there our readers probably know more than we do about certain things or are equally qualified to express views.

And so we should create the platforms and the technology and the forums by which they can take part too, and my experience is if you do that, you end up with something that is better than if we journalists just try to do it alone.” - Alan Rusbridger

On the other hand, there were also a lot of students at the lecture too, and I did wonder the extent to which Paul’s message contradicted the received wisdom of traditional journalism school training. I’ve been working with some of the MA students at City University who seem to be very aware of the digital publishing landscape, but I do worry at the number of students at undergraduate level who appear to no longer be interested in consuming analogue newspapers as a product, yet have career ambitions to write for them as if we were still in the pre-Internet years. Wannabe Hack Ben Whitelaw followed up Paul’s talk with a list of ego-driven bad habits that he said he saw trainee journalists already getting into:

  • When an aspiring journalist disregards a supposedly smaller local story in favour of chasing (and not necessarily getting) a big ‘celeb’ interview, that’s ego.
  • When an aspiring journalist gets an interview for a job or grad scheme and unsubtly goes around asking everyone else if they too have got one, that’s ego.
  • When an aspiring journalist constantly/unnecessarily refers to/boasts about the fact that they went on work experience at x or y, that’s ego.
  • When an aspiring journalist, as part of a team during production week, isn’t prepared to muck in where and when they are needed, whether it’s subbing or InDesign, that’s ego.
  • And, most of all, when an aspiring journalists can’t be bothered to go out and walk their patch or is happy to sit on Twitter, rather than meet people in the know with the stories, that’s ego of the highest order.

One of Paul Bradsahw’s closing summary points was that journalism needs to “get over itself”. He said “Journalism is not brain surgery”. It is, he argued, the connections that journalists can make across different worlds and the ability to communicate to non-experts that is the essence of the trade.

In answer to a question about objectivity at the end of the lecture, Paul set out something that I think is very important for people to bear in mind as we develop the digital storytelling methodologies of 21st century journalism:

“We are not scientists. We can’t isolate variables. But what we can do is try to be objective in a way that is better informed than the 19th century notion of pointing out that there are two sides to every story, and that only time will tell.”

Next...

The third area of Paul Bradshaw’s talk that I wanted to blog about was his strident warning over net neutrality, and I hope to publish that over the next few days...

1 Comment

As an acting coach I think I am qualified to comment on the thin line between actors and tv personalities that call themselves journalists. This is not a new phenomenon by any means. What I would definitely disagree with is the idea that journalism needs to get over itself. That is never going to happen. I was listening to NPR today and there was an interview of a journalist kidnapped in Libya. While that is an awful scenario, is it really news? Commentary? Or just a self-congratulatory look at my important work sort of thing? News loves to beat its own chest.

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