Journalism’s biggest challenge: Objectivity really is subjective

As journalists, we’re used to being told we’re less popular than estate agents. But we’re also quick to shout that in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post fact politics’ the role of the impartial, objective journalist has never been more important.

But what if fake news and the ability of the likes of UKIP and Donald Trump to thrive in a ‘post fact’ world is less to do so-called ‘news literacy’ amongst the population and more to do with the fact that, well, the rules of journalism don’t wash well with many people any more.

Jeff Jarvis, speaking at the Guardian’s Changing Media event this week, hit the nail on the head when he said:

“There is a lot of talk about news literacy – I think that is a fairly patronising and condescending view, in that ‘you must be literate to our news’, but I think the media as a whole needs to become more public-literate. The public now creates media and informs itself with every click and share.”

As journalists, we’re very good at justifying what we do and why we do it. We believe in what we do. But what if our rules aren’t the rules the people who matter most, our readers, care to appreciate?

Sometimes, it’s worth spending time seeing what we do through the eyes of a punter. Thanks to BBC Wales’ coverage of something I’ve been involved in this week, I got to do that. 

This week, the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, merged the South Wales Evening Post into WalesOnline, the company’s website aimed at the population of South Wales. By a country mile, it’s the largest competitive rival to the BBC Wales newsroom online.

It’s a project which has involved months of hard work by our team in South Wales – and one I wholeheartedly believe in, because to survive in an online world, local news and journalism needs big, engaged audiences. WalesOnline has demonstrated it can do that through a strong web platform, an audience-centric outlook on what to write about and caring about its readers.

The BBC Wales version of events was somewhat different. Having interviewed our editor in Swansea, the reporter involved from the BBC then found a politician from the Welsh Assembly to express concerns about the plan. The editor recorded on camera answering questions was never given the opportunity to answer those criticisms, with the BBC reporter instead offering Trinity Mirror’s press office the chance to make a written reply. In other words, to get a balanced story the reader was going to have to sift through text and video.

By the time the piece made it online, it was about the concerns of the assembly member that Trinity Mirror was ‘brand trashing.’ His credentials as former South Wales Evening Post paperboy were cited, the fact he was a former BBC employee and journalist was not. Allegations of chasing clicks at the expense of good journalism were thrown around, with no real opportunity for balance.

Indeed, even the politician involved conceded that to get full context of what he was trying to say, you had to read the article AND watch the video. By the time the BBC was pushing the story out on social media, this is what greeted readers:

bbc tweet

And:

bbe wales reportingThen there’s WalesOnline’s regular one-man, generally-inaccurate, watchdog, the BBC Wales Welsh Affairs editor, who dispatched this missive on Twitter:

pop ups

Other than the fact WalesOnline carries fewer ads per page than the old SWEP site, he’s 100% right. So not really right at all.

Finally, data presented in the story raised eyebrows. Billed as ‘Wales online news audiences’ it looks as though the BBC is the biggest news provider in Wales:

BBC graph

Only, the graph leaves out the North Wales Daily Post, also owned by Trinity Mirror. When the two organisations are accurately compared, it looks like this:

bbc in wales

To give a little more context, the BBC has more followers on Facebook on its BBC Wales news page than any of Trinity Mirror’s individual titles, but WalesOnline, the Daily Post and the SWEP all deliver far greater engagement on social media per URL than the BBC.

 

So why does all this matter?

Journalists, especially local journalists, pride themselves on being objective. But objectivity is subjective. The BBC will cite that they have been impartial here, but I, as the reader, believe differently.

Here’s the rub: I’m seeing this story not as a journalist, but as someone who is intimately involved with what is being reported, and as a punter. Day in, day out, journalists cover stories where they only know a fraction of the information those involved possess about the issue. And, of course, my view will also be biased. As will the people we deal with daily.

And those people are our readers. They decide whether our work carries any merit, whether we can be trusted, or whether they’d rather believe a different voice – be that a gobby councillor, a fake news site pandering to prejudices or their mate down the street.

As a journalist, I know all the arguments for defending the BBC Wales story. It does include both sides of the story, the BBC sought answers to every aspect (even if part was on camera, part was not – maybe true multimedia journalism?), it’s important the media is scrutinised etc, Tweets from journalists don’t represent the views of the organisation and so on.

But as a reader, I leave this article non-plussed and less confident about the journalism I see from BBC Wales.

When I then factor in coverage about the work we’re doing over time, I’m even less confident. Maybe that’s unfair, but that isn’t the point – because journalism’s challenge is the perception of journalism.

Plenty of journalists will read this and sigh at journalist complaining about being the subject of journalism. And I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who have seen how I reported stories and felt less confident in the journalism they saw in the papers I worked for. And those dozens of people will have talked to their mates. Sports journalists see this daily on social media.

Yet I always tried my best to be balanced, and fair. I told readers I wasn’t responsible for headlines, or that the editor chose the line we took. I told readers complaining about an angle we took in a story that all sides were covered and so on. Did it wash with those complaining? Probably not.

 

As journalists, we even pride ourselves on being criticised but being able to defend ourselves by explaining our rules. Council reporters will know they are doing a good job when all sides think they are biased against them, the old tale goes. But what if all sides actually stop taking you so seriously?

And that’s why I think Jarvis is right. People haven’t become less news literate, they just don’t see a big difference between journalism as we know it, and all the other stuff.

The only way to combat that is to stop, look at what we do, and work harder to ensure people whose paths cross our journalism are less likely to leave the experience feeling bruised and, crucially, less trusting of who we are what we do.

Really, there is no pride to be had in being as unpopular as estate agents, because to do our jobs, we need readers far more than they need us.

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4 thoughts on “Journalism’s biggest challenge: Objectivity really is subjective

  1. David,

    [I started nibbling at this, and found myself writing something more extended, collecting several recent thoughts, both directly-related and tangential, the first such writing in a while; intended in the spirit of rumination and without a sting in the tail]…

    I agree with your technical and philosophical point about the nature of subjectivity in journalism, but it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest concern over Wales Online or the amalgamation is confined to BBC Wales or its ex-reporters.

    You might be aware that a number of readers, policy thinkers, academics and politicians – without prompting by BBC News – have expressed concern about both the tone of Wales Online and the acquisition of SWWM.

    Leaving aside the accusations of “clickbait” (Wales Online is both a fantastic success, a great beacon and potentially problematic, all at the same time), the merger – to my mind – clearly presents both opportunities and challenges to the landscape.

    Opportunities because some of the same stakeholders who express concern about the erosion of local media have also historically lamented the weakness – indeed, the veritable absence – of national news media here. I believe the acquisition has the potential to create a national commercial media powerhouse for Wales that has long been sought, including by many of those who profess to care deeply about the sector here.

    But challenges, too, because there is a question mark over whether this powerhouse can be created whilst also retaining the same sense of locality that was enjoyed by some of the assets being combined, whether we can have both.

    I have worked on both sides of the fence – both BBC Wales and, before that, starting my career at the Llanelli Star, where I worked with Jonathan and helped it become one of the first UK local newspapers to go online, in 1998.

    To see llanellistar.co.uk recently be subsumed in to eveningpost.co.uk, the consolidation strategy was clear. But to then see the latter be joined in to Wales Online, it is enough to make a Scarlet turn red. The effect is jarring – when you visit llanellistar.co.uk (Llanelli), you are redirected to a page headed “SWANSEA”, dubbed “Swansea Online”, and replete with Swansea news, including reports of the derby-rival rugby club. Llanelli may enjoy a local edition of the Evening Post as well as its own Star, but these are different places, with deeply-held, if parochial, rivalries. It was never the “Swansea Evening Post” but, rather, the “South Wales Evening Post’.

    Merging these brands is an interesting and important balancing act. Focusing on Evening Post to simplify the portfolio is understandable, but also makes for a metro-centric approach that risks overlooking the other towns in the region. At least Wales Online does include a Llanelli index page, albeit less visible – but llanellistar.co.uk doesn’t redirect to it, which might have made sense (something I say, of course, in lieu of the llanellistar.co.uk traffic data you might have to confirm whether this would have been worth it or not).

    I’m going to be interested to see how things pan out, because local news “for local people”, as they say, is quite different to locally-reported news for the national audience. But not so radically different that it can’t be written for both audiences at once as, indeed, BBC News itself does. The core difference may come down to news selection and scope in the first place. I think the concerns of some people, that local reporters minded to serve national audiences may be less inclined to cover truly local news in the same way as previously, are understandable (though Wales Online’s less-obvious Llanelli page does seem to inherit the same mix of court reporting and local tidbits at present).

    Perhaps by means of context, I find myself accepting that the forces of delocalisation are far from driven by news economics alone…

    1. For instance, Wales used to have a much richer number of nine top-flight rugby clubs, touching more communities across the south, until regionalisation of 2004 cut that number to four, forcing supporters to either come together or walk away.
    2. The current Swansea Bay City Region city-deal project sees the four local authorities of south-west Wales partner on economic development (even if the land-grab naming of that project puts a parochial chip on my shoulder as much as llanellistar.co.uk’s “Swansea Online” redirect does).
    3. Wales is currently in the throes (paused) of examining a reduction in the number of local authorities, representing something of a historical to’ing and fro’ing, a yo-yoing of the tension between local and regional.
    4. And the democratic imperative behind the power shift to our assembly now necessitates a drive behind a centralised national power base.

    Times, then, have changed.

    In news media, I think it can often be the case that journalism thinkers who work hard for the protection of local news constructs, or their re-enablement online, sometimes overlook that many of the former functions of local newspapers have not gone because of cuts alone, but because they are being conducted in online arenas that citizens may not even recognise as “news”. Or, should that be “News”, in the industrial sense, which I think is the myopia that Jeff Jarvis was seeking to admonish.

    However, this stuff matters. If we assume that the trajectory of the Llanelli Star and Carmarthen Journal is the closure of print editions at the point of unsustainability, then locating that same news online or in some format – if you choose to contest that it has not gone away, it has merely moved online – becomes crucial, both today and tomorrow. It will be interesting, the extent to which the rival Llanelli Herald may pick up any audience or not from these circumstances as they play out.

    But then, parallels in other media offer a mixed outlook. The Radio Pembrokeshire stations, which launched amid a rapid delocalisation of commercial radio, have since relocated to a facility almost 100 miles east of the broadcast region, and are themselves pooling content with stablemates.

    The history of local and regional news online has been of alternating between incumbent individual brands and grouped portals. The SWWM titles have already been through the ThisIsSouthWales era, before it was decided the historical brand names were assets, not anchors. The magazine business has been through the same flip-flopping process at lest twice, though some publishers are now returning to a portal strategy.

    But the sensitivity in this country is doubly keen because, at the national level, the powers that be are concerned that national Welsh politics is going unreported by UK news media and unread by Welsh citizens, jeopardising the basis for democracy (hence, the hope in Wales Online). You might forgive them for also observing industrial change at the local level and consequently fearing a perfect storm of democratic deficit at the bottom, as well as the top.

    There is an irony, by the way, in citing Wales Online’s market-leading traffic as success over rivals. Given the context I describe above, those who are concerned about its audience-building strategy may actually find more alarm here than cause for celebration.

    Robert

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for taking the time to share so much on this. On the point of redirects etc, this is something I’ll look into.

      A lot of the regionalisation of areas dilemma you refer to equally applies to England, only without the sense of national identity which sits at the other extreme to local identity (very different in some respects, but also very similar in others). For years, governments have tried to turn things first into regional assemblies and now city deal regions, and the things which matter to people – decisions on the NHS, for example – have become more remote, and harder to report. Courts sit further away than they used to, policing decisions are taken at a regional level and so on.

      I think our challenge is to be big enough to provide as robust a setting as possible for our journalism (and content generally) while at the same time being truly local. One dilemma here is how much of what goes into a weekly print newspaper is ‘ours’ to own online. So for example, junior football is still a mainstay of many local newspapers, but does very little for us online – not just in terms of headline audience, but engagement with it too. Why would you share a 200-word summary of your son’s 7-a-side match when you can share the 500-word version the local league has already written? Equally, many things people used to want to see in the local weekly paper, they now just put on Facebook. It works for them, and it still means something to appear in print in perhaps a way it doesn’t online.

      The other side of that coin is that we can make the most of our localness in ways we couldn’t previously. Being seen to celebrate why someone should live in, say, Macclesfield, does the website there a power of good in terms of audience because a) it fosters goodwill from local readers and b) works in search over a long period of time and in social over a shorter period of time – but you’d never think of putting a ‘why it’s great to live in Macclesfield’ in the local paper. Ditto other informational content, plus data-led journalism and so on.

      So I think our challenge is to bottle the stuff which still means a lot to people locally and put it in a place where it can thrive. Making sure that people can get to the bit of what they want easily has to be our aim – be that through personalisation, or Facebook-style personalisation or just better sign posting and community creating on social media.

      The who are writing for point is fascinating. We have to be writing for a local audience primarily, and always for the people who know the subject best, while at the same time making it inclusive enough for someone who doesn’t know a particular area. But that’s easy to put in a sentence – harder to deliver every day!

  2. The South Wales Evening Post website (and the Llanelli Star site before it) had a wealth of news stories and information not found in other sources. It also had a different perspective to the BBC. This was invaluable for research particularly when looking for references to add information to Wikipedia for example.

    All that has now been lost due to the URLs being redirected to Wales Online. I can’t find a search feature on Wales Online and I don’t know if it would find any stories from those merged newspaper sites in any case.

    Those SWEP are still cached by Google for a while but will soon disappear. Sites like the Internet Archive may have archived the homepage but deep links are mostly missing. Some of the article are available through other databases such as NewsBank but not all stories are there.
    What a loss. What this means is that commercial news websites like Wales Online will become irrelevant as a source of historical information as nobody can depend on it being permanent or archivable. At least the BBC has permanent news URLs going back to the 1990s

    1. Thanks for the comment. A search function is coming to WalesOnline very soon. In terms of a permanent archive, we do have that, and will preserve it. While not publicly available 24/7, we will work to get more of it online.

      Archived content represents about 1% of the activity on our sites, and we have to balance keeping up with technology and reader expectations which flows from technology with our desire to be a public record of local life. We document far more than the BBC does locally – the question is how to make sure it’s all available.

      One option would be to charge for access to it, as is common elsewhere, I guess?

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