Why the right of reply is essential to journalism – either in print or online

In the last week, two of my blog posts – both on very different areas of journalism – have prompted responses which, it turns out, contained a similar thread.

One involved Prof Roy Greenslade, the other Simon Perry, from the Isle of Wight’s Ventnor Blog.

Greenslade wrote a post on his blog in response to my suggestion that some journalism bloggers were letting the side down by no sticking to some basic journalistic rules when it came to writing about (and copying chunks of) articles which appeared elsewhere on the web.

I argued that when dealing with statements intended to be controversial, journalism bloggers should always seek to report in a balanced way. That doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion as you go along, but to me just repeating what someone else says and throwing your own opinion in for good measure doesn’t really do much for anyone.

Greenslade disagreed:

This blog is a mixture of aggregation, commentary, analysis, diary items and news reporting. It represents a developing form of journalism as we come to terms with the digital revolution.

This platform is very different from print, not least in the way it allows for swift, almost instantaneous, rebuttal and comment from users. It is a forum for the rapid exchange of ideas and views. That is a great advantage, and an advance, over printed newspapers.

In content terms, a blog is not a screen replica of a print newspaper. It is journalism in the raw, a live conversation between people interested and involved in a specific topic (in this case, journalism).

It does not mean, as Higgerson argues, that we bloggers ignore basic journalistic principles. If a news story is acutely sensitive (witness yesterday’s separate items here on the News of the World and The Independent) then it may be necessary to ensure the posting reflects opposing points of view (or fact).

That said, I would even be prepared to make out a case for running stories on this blog without contacting “the other side” in the knowledge that this platform enables people to respond.

This idea scares me somewhat. Just because some can respond in the comments doesn’t mean journalists should fail to conduct basic journalistic tasks, such as seeking an alternative opinion, especially when it’s the person who has been subject of criticism. And to say you seek comments only when the matter is particularly ‘sensitive’ is also a major shift in the principle of fair, balanced journalism.

He adds:

A lengthy piece of academic research is not a news story. And I didn’t doubt for a moment that Trinity Mirror would take issue with his study, as it did.

He’s right there. Andy Williams’s study shouldn’t have been news – especially when the online community forced out the fact he’d based much of criticism on very old information – but once people like Greenslade repeat it, and present it to a new audience, it does become a news story. That’s the point at which journalists should seek to be balanced.

That said, Greenslade is right on one point:

It represents a developing form of journalism as we come to terms with the digital revolution

Spot on – but that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath water. Why write two blog posts – the original, then the response – when you could present all sides in the first instance, and provide the reader with a better experience?

Of course, it’s possible to argue a post is fair and balanced just because it contains a paragraph at the end of a post which puts an alternative view. Most of us would argue that such a situation isn’t fair or balanced, but at least it presents an alternative view. And we never know what that alternative view will be until we ask.

When I put in an FOI request to Merseyside Police in 2008 asking for a list of all the crimes people were issued cautions for, the response included one caution for attempted murder. It walked onto the front page of the Liverpool Daily Post, even with the quote from Merseyside Police that they though this was an administrative error (there were enough other crimes on there to make it a good story).

I mention this now because of the considered response I received from The Ventnor Blog to FOI Friday from a fortnight ago. The Ventnor Blog had used FOI to find out how much was spent by the council in the local newspaper, the County Press. It was a particularly interesting FOI to me, largely because my knowledge of newspapers meant there were lots of other questions I’d like to have seen answered – I guess that gave me an insight into the mind of council officers who see parts of their work turned into FOIs.

But I also suggested that quotes from the council and paper would have been good too. In the comment to this post, Simon wrote:

When you asked us about this in your Tweet, it did make me re-question why we hadn’t asked them for comment, but our report was an analysis of the figures that we’d received – they were cold facts, not a thesis.

To be frank, I really don’t know what either of them could have added beyond, “errr … yes, we do pay/get paid that amount.”

In my opinion, and it just an opinion,  that asking the question of each party could have resulted in much more than just confirmation of the FOI facts – maybe even a justification from each side, which in turn could have prompted greater debate.

From the time I’ve spent with people running hyperlocal sites in recent months, one of the regular issues which comes up is the way they are sometimes denied access to things which mainstream media journalists are granted access to automatically.

To me, one of the dangers of not giving all sides the chance to comment on articles concerning them is that it results in a continued split between the access granted to mainstream journalists and the access given to bloggers or those running hyperlocal sites. In other words, it provides some people with an excuse not to give hyperlocal sites equal access.

There will be those who always seek to deny people access to information, and my fear is that investigative work such as Ventnor Blog’s FOI request could be undermined by people who say it’s not balanced.

This isn’t intended to be a criticism of either Greenslade or Ventnor Blog, as I enjoy reading both, but I do fear that forgetting the assumption that everyone is entitled to a right to reply can only do us harm in the long run.

That said, I’m happy to be proved wrong…

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