The rise and rise of journalistic churlishism

Rioting in Birmingham

We all know about churnalism, but I’m getting a little fed up of churlishism. What’s that, then? Well, to me it’s the so-called ‘analysis’ and ‘opinion’ of other journalists passing judgement on aspects of the news media.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against people having their say on what we do. In fact, over the last 48 hours, there have been several occasions when readers, or people we connect with on social media, have made it possible to improve our coverage of one of the biggest stories of recent times – the riots.

So what makes a piece of journalistic analysis churlishism? The first tell-tale sign is that some of the key basic aspects of journalism have been missed – such as seeking all sides to an argument.

If it becomes clear that obvious facts have been missed – or the chance to garner obvious facts – in favour of reaching what appears to be pre-determined conclusion, then that’s probably churlishism. And an eye-grabbing headline which makes much of their opinion is probably another sign too.

There were aspects of churlishism on Twitter on Saturday night. When Paul Lewis of the Guardian was dodging rioters to update followers on a breaking news story, there were some journalists who sought to criticise the quality of the pictures he was putting out on Twitter. Yep, reporter caught up in riots where anyone who displays a camera gets attacked gets criticised for not putting pixel-perfect images on social media.

Another example, and perhaps the best I’ve seen, came from journalism.co.uk. In a piece it labelled as ‘opinion’, journalist Sarah Marshall sets out to prove that students working on the Redbrick student newspaper have ‘outshined’ the Birmingham Post and Mail websites in the coverage of the riots in the city.

Having spent the last two nights working with colleagues on the coverage on several of our websites, including the Mail site, it won’t surprise you to learn I disagree with the conclusion. That’s not a criticism of what Redbrick has produced over the last two days – although it’s a bit patronising that only way Marshall can seek to priase Redbrick is by comparing it favourably to the Post and Mail. It’s worthy of praise anyway.

As for the Post and Mail coverage, Marshall’s argument basically appears to be this: It’s a huge story but it’s not dominating the whole of the home page on either the Post or Mail site. Therefore, she concludes, it’s an example of an organisation which news to focus on its online content more.

This is where I began to think it was an example of churlishism. Marshall quotes extenstively Redbrick journalists, and also quotes staff at the Manchester Evening News – another Trinity Mirror title which deploys the same sort of tools when dealing with a breaking news story as any other Trinity Mirror title does. Yet, for the websites she chooses to criticise the most, there’s no comment at all.

Journalism.co.uk certainly used to have my details. They used to be able to ring to check facts, and often they did. Had they rung me, I’d have been able to tell them that the layout of the website homepage wasn’t an indication of the importance we placed on the riot, even though the riot dominates the news lists and dynamic panels on both sites.

The homepage is the result of the fact we’re acutely aware that no matter how big one story, there are always plenty of people logging on to our sites for other information – people who get fed up very quickly if they can’t find what they’re looking for. In the case of the Birmingham Post, that means continuing to show the latest business headlines. On the Birmingham Mail, that means showing that life is going on in the city as well, not to mention sports coverage on both sites.

Had Marshall got in contact, I could have pointed out to the unprecedented traffic levels we’ve witnessed, the huge volume of people finding us via the search term ‘Birmingham riots’ and the massive spike in people searching for ‘Birmingham Mail.’ Actually, one of the interesting sides to the coverage has been the huge spike in branded searches for our titles since the riots erupted – proof that when a big story breaks, many people still think to look up their local newspaper.

I could have pointed out the regular video updates, new picture galleries around the clock, the almost hourly updates with new stories, the live blog which has been read by thousands (praised, rightly, by Marshall when done by the MEN but overlooked when done by Birmingham), and the constant use of social media to not just report news, but to share information and debunk rumours.

An opinion piece either contains no comments from those involved, or comments from all those involved. At the very least, good journalism should dictate that you seek information from all sides. As it is, none of that happened. When I raised this with Marshall via Twitter, she replied that she’d be interested in my thoughts. Not so interested, presumbly, that it was worth contacting us in advance. I could also have pointed her in the direction of the Liverpool ECHO and Daily Post websites, which like Birmingham, have worked around the clock and, like the MEN and the Birmingham papers, done a brilliant job.

That to me isn’t journalism. It isn’t commentary. It’s churlishism. It might grab people’s attention on Twitter and lead to some clickthroughs, it might warrant responses underneath (although at time of writing, only I and someone else have replied), but it certainly can’t be described as a balanced insight into journalism.

Of course, journalism.co.uk isn’t alone in doing this. I’m sure there are some who feel Roy Greenslade‘s opinion piece on local papers in London is another such example – hopefully he’ll follow it up with examples of places which have done things well in his opinion. As for journalism.co.uk, lets hope it returns to making better judgements when selecting the speakers for the next news:rewired conference.

Criticism is what makes us better. But we can all do without churlish attacks on what we do.

9 comments

  1. Interesting blog and you’re right to raise these points. But I just wanted to flag up that I felt disappointed with the Mail’s coverage online on Monday night. I was watching rolling tv news reports of how there were disturbances in Birmingham and when I went on the Mail’s website there was nothing, except a small national piece which was mainly about the riots in London.

    1. Thanks Sarah, and point noted. It was a difficult balancing act at first on Monday, because we didn’t want to be accused of over-hyping things. We were also getting a lot of conflicting reports, which took time to stand up. The last thing we wanted to do was say something was happening when it wasn’t.

  2. Spot on. The j.co.uk piece was utter nonsense. All it did was prove that you don’t have to understand journalism to work on journalism.co.uk. Nice URL, lousy writing.

  3. I agree it was very lousy writing. Factually shambolic and fundamentally pointless. Great job by Birmingham Mail and Redbrick on riot coverage.

  4. Good piece David. In London I noticed a lot of great reporting in North London and Croydon by journalists covering the riots via Twitter. Then saw some criticism of their websites.

    I thought this was amazingly churlish considering the risk the journalists were taking. In fact one of them Gareth Davies of the Croydon Advertiser has been attacked but kept on reporting on Twitter for hours.

    Is it now easier and faster for reporters covering riots to use Twitter rather than file frontline pieces for their website?

    Anyway, well said and well done to all those reporters who dodged the bricks and violence to report accurate news. They deserve praise not brickbats.

    1. Thanks John. I’m all for constructive criticism, but there appears to be nasty tendency to start kicking journalists as soon as possible whenever a big story breaks.

  5. I am glad to hear that the online coverage of the riots by the Post and Mail has been well received by many.

    My criticism was largely based on the first impression of someone arriving to the websites. I was surprised to find that the story of rioting in the city was not immediately apparent on the Post’s homepage.

    It is a fair point that once you get into the content of the Mail’s live blog, video and picture coverage, it is indeed impressive but it is a shame the titles don’t have the option of an image-led homepage lock-up to better showcase the coverage.

    On reflection, I should have called in advance of publishing my opinion piece to get comment. Comment from David has now been added to the piece with a note explaining the addition.

    1. Thanks Sarah. I think the key question here is why you didn’t think to contact us – after all, you spoke to people you were happy to be positive about, but not those you sought to be negative about. If you compare the MEN coverage to that of the Liverpool ECHO (not mentioned at all in your piece) or the Birmingham Post and Mail you will see it’s all broadly similar. Confusing site layout with quality of content is the fundamental flaw of your argument, and leaves a bitter taste. ‘Students beat traditional press’ is a clever headline, but very flawed. If it was me, I’d be ashamed of that article.

  6. Spot on piece, David. I get the impression these days that, because the done thing is to criticise the “traditional” media for being slower/less engaged than social news platforms, it’s become easy to use them as a whipping boy regardless of the actual facts of the matter.

    It’s easy for the likes of Greenslade, J.co.uk etc to throw in a line about proprietors needing to invest better in technology to keep servers up, change designs or whatever, but ultimately it’s the hacks producing the content who end up reading what amounts to churlish and unfair criticism of their hard work.

    Indeed – Greenslade’s criticism about the servers not being able to cope overlooks the remarkable circumstances faced by those London titles, which presumably never anticipated having that kind of traffic overnight for a weekly paper’s website. It’s one thing to say they should be ready, but quite another to expect them to anticipate such a remarkable set of circumstances.

    Likewise the J.co.uk piece, which smacked of being a “me too” echoing of Greenslade and failed to give credit where it was due in an effort to be seen to big up non-traditional media.

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