Although not wishing to prolong Cardiff University research fellow Andy Williams’s moment in the spotlight on the back of his unwarranted attack on Media Wales, there’s a side issue I wanted to look at in a bit more depth.
There’s not much point in talking about Williams’s piece on Open Democracy any more. As comments have come in, and a response from Media Wales, it became clear his article was more a blog post than fresh research. In fact, it was based on research which is the best part of four years old and which was widely criticised at the time for being hopelessly one-sided. I guess that’s the beauty of interaction online – as Williams has discovered, you soon find yourself justifying yourself and being scrutinised.
But much as Williams’s piece was wrong in many ways, not to mention insulting to the journalists working at Media Wales – see my last piece looking at how it appears he applied so much spin to one fact that even Alastair Campbell would have second thoughts- it was just an opinion piece. Like anyone else, he was perfectly entitled to write it, and then wait for the reaction. The fact an academic tried to speak as an authority on journalism without applying basic journalistic standards – accuracy, fact checking, balance etc – is ironic, but not really the point of this post.
Williams’s piece probably wouldn’t have generated such reaction had it just stayed on Open Democracy. What fascinates me is the treatment it received on what should be some of the most authorative blogs on journalism.
First up, Dominic Ponsford, editor of the ‘journalist’s bible’ Press Gazette. Under the title of ‘a devastating critique of Trinity Mirror’s stewardship‘ Ponsford copies and pastes much of Williams’s work, applies a bit of an opinion on top himself – but didn’t include a response from Trinity Mirror (Disclosure: My employer, but I’m writing in a personal capacity here).
Now this is a blog written by the editor of Press Gazette. He’s picked up on an opinion which he knew would be controversial, hence posting it on his blog. If he was writing that for a newspaper, he’d have to go and get a comment from the side being criticised, and perhaps even ask some questions about the source of the facts which Williams had put forward.
Yet looking at his blog, it was only when asked this question by someone commenting that he decided to seek a response:
One of the benefits of the blog format for me is that it enables Press Gazette to cover a lot of ground by linking to interesting stuff on other sites. It’s intended to be aggregation plus insight, and is not really used by us as a vehicle for a lot of original reporting – we try to do some of that on the main news section of the site.
But you make a fair point, it would be interesting to find out what Trinity Mirror’s response is to the Williams study. I’ve asked them for a comment now so watch this space…
I’m not sure copying and pasting a bunch of controversial quotes and adding a bit of a punch on top for good measure is either linking or aggregation. Linking or aggregation is surely mentioning what someone has written elsewhere and pushing the traffic on – not repeating facts which hadn’t been verified. Where’s the value in that?
Ponsford isn’t alone here. MediaGuardian’s Prof Roy Greenslade did something similar when he got wind of it, reprinting the highlights with little, if any, comment or analysis on top. Again, surely if the purpose of the blog is to bring to attention what people are saying elsewhere – which, therefore, is reporting what others are saying – surely it’s the duty of the reporter (or blogger) to report both sides.
When challenged on this point, Greenslade says:
I am happy for people to challenge the validity of the research (and, hopefully, so is Andy Williams). That’s the whole point of this wonderful business of participation.
How about someone from the Western Mail making out a case too?
How about journalism bloggers upholding some basic principles of reporting and seeking to produce fair and balanced blog posts? Surely it’s the job of a reporter/blogger repeating claims made by someone else to check the validity of what’s being said?
Ironically, Greenslade linked to all the corrections made by the Daily Star this year in a later piece, including one apology which admits the title did not check the accuracy of claims being made in an article that a video game was being made based on events in Rothbury.
How different is what Greenslade highlights in the Star to what he did by just repeating opinions expressed by an academic who, by his own admission, has never worked in a newsroom?
And since when did it become the norm for journalists to say to the audience ‘if you want to challenge it, go ahead?’ Audience participation is crucial, but surely adhereing to the basic principles of reporting is crucial for bloggers whose blogs try to be a news source for many in the industry.
An example of how it perhaps should be done comes from Sarah Hartley, when she blogged for The Guardian about Tameside Council’s policy of only letting certain people tweet from councils – members of the local press basically. This excluded a (now former) hyperlocal blogger, Liam Billington. Had Hartley applied the principle of just repeating one side, you’d have only seen what Billington had to say. Surely it makes for a better post to have the respnse from the council too (even if another claim made in the article, in quotes from a third party, that the Manchester Evening News had only recently started covering council meetings was inaccurate)?
To me, perhaps the main lesson to learn here is that just because a medium is instant, it doesn’t mean we have to publish straight away. Especially when most newsrooms will tell you that just the mention of the names Press Gazette and Greenslade will get the attention of the editor very quickly.
I’ve mentioned irony on more than occasion in this post. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is, that in failing to present balanced arguments on their blogs, Greenslade and Ponsford live up to Williams’s suggestion that journalists just renose from other sources.
Or have I missed the point?
Update: Jon Slattery, writing about this post on his blog, argues:
Although I believe all journalists should try to balanced and fair in their reporting, I think there is a big difference between print and online. When I worked for Press Gazette we would normally seek to get the views of the other side when proposing to run a critical story but we were working to a weekly publishing print time deadline.
With online there are no deadlines but a post can be added to or changed, if it is challenged, or a response carried later – as did the journalism blogs when the editor of the Western Mail hit back at Williams. It’s what some people mean by a “conversation” on the web, a continuing story that adds in new detail and reaction in a way you can’t in print.
Print and online are obviously different, but should the medium dictate the quality of the journalism? Surely it’s better to hold back and get all the facts rather than rush to be the first to repeat one-sided information? There’s a big difference between a conversation developing around a story/blog post and the ‘conversation’ being needed to make up for lazy journalism in the first place.