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