When a well-respected national newspaper gets it really, really wrong, can it ever be excused?
Can it ever be explained?
This post is in response to horrible reporting by several of the U.K.’s premiere newspapers this week, who badly mis-reported an account regarding the rise in 11-year-old girls using birth control pills – for medical reasons not for contraception!
Print journalists are a special breed of writer, some would argue, a special breed of human being. It is their job, both ethically and professionally, to digest a large amount of information and then turn it over as quickly as possible into an understandable narrative. Then, often without taking a breath, they must do it all over again, and again, and again, ad infinitum.
I trained really hard to do that job. I had wanted to be a print journalist since I was a kid. I believed, and still believe, that the news media is the last guardian of our democracy, ensuring that the public is not abused by its government. I believe that world history has shown that without a free, and vigorous press, there can be no freedom.
I was on school newspapers from middle school to university, got my journalism degree, completed an internship, then became a “cub” reporter on a small daily newspaper. I was a Walter Cronkite-inspired journalist – I wanted to be one of the good gals, riding to democracy’s rescue at any cost.
When I started in the business, most newspapers of even medium circulation had an “ombudsman” on staff. That person, who was also a trained journalist, had autonomy and was not controlled by the news ‘side’ of the business.
The ombudsmen (generally a man back then) spent their days investigating complaints by readers who accused the paper of making errors on stories, or of playing favorites and not being neutral on a particular issue, often political. In short, ensuring that the newspaper maintained its integrity in protecting the public interest.
By the time I became a veteran print journalist, almost all newspapers had eliminated the ombudsmen, deciding instead to investigate errors on their own – disregarding the obvious conflict of interest inherent in that decision.
Back then, the news side of the newspaper was truly separate from the advertising side, and they worked hard to keep it that way. Reporters were expected to get the news wherever they found it, and not worry about being censored to protect advertisers (or anyone else) from the potential fall-out of those stories.
Journalists were NOT entertainers, and news was...well, news: What was happening in the local, state and national levels, along with appropriate analysis to help readers make real sense of it all. Reporters were expected to gather the facts accurately, to analyze fairly, and to print it as soon as possible.
When I was a journalist, ‘Breaking News’ was not Linsey Lohan going to jail!
I was taught that to ensure accuracy every story should be fact-checked by the reporter, and the editors would challenge journalists once they brought the account back to the paper. If the information was provided by a “source,” it had to be verified by at least two other sources, three if the reporter could do it in time.
Imagine a simple story, a single-car accident. Now imagine the number of separate facts that has to be gathered to report it. Not just the who, what, when, where, why and how, but an almost infinite amount of other stuff to describe what had happened. Even the location of the wreck: Road, Street, Circle, Boulevard, Highway, Freeway, or etc.? So, even the simplest story has literally hundreds of facts, each one of those that can easily be mis-reported.
I gave a lecture once and asked the audience how many of them had ever had their names printed in a newspaper for any reason. Of those who had, I asked how many of them had their names spelled wrong. Easily 90 percent raised their hands!
Now imagine a really complex story. How many separate facts might there be? Thousands. Thousands of opportunities to blow it, to screw up one or more of these in just one story.
Next, consider a journalist who must digest, and report on a lengthy published survey, or worse yet, a scientific document that has a lot of industry-specific jargon. Imagine that same reporter may not have a science background, but that the staffing requirements of the newspaper has forced them to tackle the story.
OK. So, they have to read the hundreds of those pages cold, figure out what all of it means, then write it up. Now, imagine that reporter getting all those facts down correctly, and analyzed in the pressure cookers of deadline and media competition.
Deadlines were and are very real. Each story has an assigned deadline, generally established by the location the story would have in that day’s edition. For example, a lesser story that appeared in the back pages would have a sooner deadline because those pages would come off the press first. Front page stories had the latest deadlines possible to allow them to be updated up until the paper was “put to bed.”
Reporters were required to “write-through” their stories throughout the night, updating their accounts with any new information or to “flesh it out” by adding texture and more details to the last possible second.
Media competition was and is very real. Getting the stories first, beating the other news agencies, was drummed into our heads as much as getting those stories right. I knew of one national newspaper that would routinely send two of their own reporters to cover the same story to deliberately create competition between their own people!
When I became a journalist, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no electronic communication other than a land-line telephone in the home, or public pay phones on the street. Newspapers literally hit the street, either delivered in the morning, or sold by hawkers on the street.
Broadcast journalists didn’t even try to compete then, because they only had to fill 90 seconds of air-time for the most important story of the day. Often, they just waited for the newspapers to come out, then followed them on the noon and nighttime local news.
When I abruptly left the industry everything had changed. The Internet had spread like a genuine virus, news ink and actual paper costs had gone up more than 800 percent in one year, and blogging was well underway.
Instead of a 12-hour news cycle, it was suddenly now a 24-hour news cycle. Most newspapers were caught flat-footed, ill-equipped to play and compete in this new techno world.
They struggled to put their newspapers on websites. Instead of reporters, they hired computer technicians, and threw money at the whole thing, often haphazardly.
Traditionalists in many ways, a lot of newspaper and magazine managements thought the Internet wouldn’t last, or that it wouldn’t draw their readers like moths to a flame. They were wrong, wrong, wrong, so they panicked. Many staid publications stumbled and fell, never to recover, resulting in the largest number of bankruptcies in newspaper-magazine history.
Competition now came from every possible direction. Bloggers, and those who use Twitter don’t have to be trained writers, and their facts don’t have to be checked, since no one is looking over their shoulders. Newspaper advertisers pulled out for their own financial reasons, and began using their dollars on TV, cable stations or the Internet instead.
Newspapers fired veteran journalists from their sinking ships, then changed a lot of basic rules. Now, reporters turned their attention from news to entertainment and sensationalism, pressured to woo readers back into the literal fold any way they could. Now, pet stories compete with political stories on the front pages of respected newspapers.
New reporters either didn’t have the experience to fact-check as thoroughly, or they weren’t mentored by veteran journalists and editors. They floundered, and as that happened more and more frequently, newspapers stopped being bastions of accuracy and integrity, and gradually became just part of the overwhelming communication, quasi-information grist.
I’d always wanted to be a print journalist. Always. I left the industry I’d believed in, loved with my whole professional soul, and worked so hard at for so long. Now, I try my damndest only to look back when required – ironically, via my own blog!
— The Curator