Thursday, May 22, 2008

Intro: what the journalists of the future are expected to read

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation invited me to review the latest edition of its book Intro: A Beginner's Guide to Professional News Journalism. The intention was to publish my review on the JTO website and by doing so, presumably, to promote sales of the book. I duly read the book, wrote my review and sent it to JTO chairman Mike Fletcher. I advised Mike that it was probably not the review he either expected or wanted, and that I would understand if the JTO didn't use it. Well, so it has turned out. A couple of months have elapsed and there's no sign of my review, which is fine with me. But because I spent unpaid time reading the book and writing my review, and - far more importantly - because I believe Intro raises issues that need to be publicly aired and debated, I have posted my review here.

The Journalists Training Organisation recently published the latest edition of Intro: A Beginner’s Guide to Professional News Journalism. This is the fourth version of what is now considered the definitive textbook – a “must have” – for New Zealand journalism students.

Previous editions were edited by Jim Tucker, now running the revitalised Whitireia Polytechnic Journalism School in Wellington, but this book is largely the work of another JT – Jim Tully. Tully, like Tucker, was a respected journalist in his day and now heads the School of Political Science and Communication at the University of Canterbury. He not only edited the book but also wrote many of the chapters himself.

The first question that occurs on reading the latest edition and comparing it with its predecessor, published only four years ago, is why the new version was considered necessary. Much of the generally excellent 2004 edition remains relevant, yet the book has been almost totally revised. And by and large, the changes are not for the better.

The 2004 edition was brighter, more dynamic, more varied and – perhaps most important – had a much sharper practical focus. Interestingly enough, Jim Tucker commented in his introduction to that book that it was the practical approach of New Zealand journalists such as Peter Arnett that had made New Zealand journalists so successful internationally. Tucker was disparaging about American journalism textbooks’ emphasis on theory and said (and I heartily agree) that it was “essential … that the number eight wire elements of journalism practice in New Zealand should not be lost in a mire of academic theorising”.

It’s ironic, then, that the new edition pays a great deal of attention to theory – especially American theory – and to American journalism models. The relevance of this to journalism practice in New Zealand is often not apparent.

The reader gets bogged down in a theoretical swamp within the first few pages. In a chapter entitled What is News?, Tully discusses the ideas of the American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky and the sociologist Herbert Gans. The theories of these academics, who view the media as a propaganda tool manipulated by the rich and powerful, more properly belong in media studies texts than in a book that professes to be a practical training manual for budding journalists. They are views that many working journalists would vigorously dispute and they deserve no more than a footnote here.

Unfortunately this chapter sets the tone for a book which frequently cites academic “authorities” whose esoteric views are of minimal relevance to working journalists. Politics and ideology intrude repeatedly. Woolly ideas are often expressed in an arcane, impenetrable language that is not only alien to most journalists but is also, ironically, the antithesis of the direct, plain style of writing that journalists are encouraged to use. In this respect, Intro has strayed far from the strong practical thrust of its precursors.

Another weakness is that the book more often resembles a treatise on the state of journalism than a manual of useful advice for people who want to be journalists.

Journalists Training Organisation chairman Mike Fletcher, in his foreword, rightly refers to the challenges facing journalists in the era of multiskilling and convergence, when they must master multiple ways to tell their stories. Yet the chapter entitled News and the Net, by Donald Matheson (also from the University of Canterbury), is essentially just a long feature story – replete with clumsy academic buzzwords such as “disaggregated” and “disintermediated” – about the impact of the “new media”. There is virtually no practical advice about how a journalist might meet the challenge of working in the new technological environment.

Even Jim Tucker isn’t immune to the gibberish fostered by university media studies faculties. In an otherwise generally down-to-earth section on news writing – one of the few chapters lifted largely intact from the previous edition – he lapses into media studies-speak, talking of news as a “discourse” involving “semiotics” (signs) and “the rhetoric of narration”.

Tucker also challenges the notion of objectivity that has underpinned New Zealand news journalism for much of the past century, boldly asserting that it has been “exposed by media academics as a sham”. But he doesn’t really develop this provocative argument, and the journalism student is left unsure – as in the 2004 book – whether objectivity is a value to be aspired to, as most editors would almost certainly argue, or to be disregarded. Tully, too, tackles the issue of objectivity but doesn’t seem to come to any firm conclusion.

There is much of value in the book. High-profile journalists have been interviewed for advice on subjects ranging from feature-writing to interviewing. An excellent (and witty) chapter on court reporting, by former Christchurch Press chief reporter Dave Clarkson, succeeds in making journalism sound like fun – an element mostly lacking elsewhere in the book.

There’s a snappy chapter on police reporting, by Massey University journalism tutors Alan Samson and James Hollings, which again conveys something of the adrenalin buzz of the newsroom. And there are businesslike, no-nonsense contributions by Cathy Strong on radio and TV journalism.

There is also unintentional humour in a comical chapter in which Massey journalism school head Grant Hannis confidently sets out to demystify numbers and does precisely the opposite. Journalists, who are notoriously maths-shy, will be cross-eyed after a couple of pages. (A more user-friendly chapter in the previous edition, alerting journalists to the common pitfalls of carelessness with numbers, was far more effective.)

But the book lacks the breadth of previous editions. The thoughtful contributions of journalists and ex-journalists such as Al Morrison, John King, Adelia Ferguson and Jan Corbett have inexplicably been dropped, though it would have taken only minimal editing to update them. As it is, Tully spreads himself far too thinly, contributing 12 of the 24 chapters – including one on sports journalism, a field in which he has never been considered a specialist.

Though well regarded as a journalist in his day, Tully has been in academia for 20 years and inevitably it shows. He tends to write in an academic rather than a journalistic style and his emphasis is often on the abstruse and theoretical, drawing on American sources that are of doubtful application here. His “war stories” are tired and too much of his writing consists of analysing current journalism trends rather than offering helpful advice for beginners.

There are also glaring omissions. There are no chapters, for example, on media law or reporting politics – crucial subjects that were covered in the previous edition. There are, however, 10 pages on the importance of the media reflecting cultural diversity.

This chapter, again written by Tully, tells us that journalists have an “obligation flowing from the Treaty of Waitangi” to recognise and reflect our bicultural status – a highly contentious proposition – and buys into politically correct silliness about how the media should report issues involving the disabled. (Apparently we must avoid such stereotypes as the “inspirational” story about the athlete who succeeds in spite of a disability, because this might send a “message of pity”.)

But perhaps the saddest failing of the book is that in all its earnestness, it seems to miss the vital message that journalism is the business of telling interesting and important stories, and having a lot of fun in the process. In this respect, too, the previous volume was much more successful.




14 comments:

Kathy said...

Congrats on the new blog, Karl. And if this is how young journalists are being indoctrinated, I tear my hair out. To not even encourage young journalists to aspire to objectivity (even if 100 percent purity of such is impossible) is a real danger. I recall a couple of years ago, on a newsdesk in Wellington, myself and a senior journo in his 60s having a vigorous argument about global warming — I was the sceptic and he the believer. We were reacting to some new report emphasising the threat of global warming. Afterwards I saw he had assigned a reporter to write a reaction story quoting substantially from the New Zealand scientists' group which is sceptical about global warming. I said I was surprised he had done so. He said if he agreed wholeheartedly with a particular view, he made doubly sure that as a news editor, the contrary view was well represented. I admired that as a journalistic principle in action — having a definite view of one's own, but seeing past it and aspiring to balanced reporting.

Truth Seeker said...

Excellent entree to the blogosphere. Thank you for posting this review. I haven't read the old edition or the new one, so can't comment on content in any useful way.

As a general comment on media, I've been a media consumer for over 35 years in several English-speaking countries. At one time I wanted to be a journalist and did two years of a journalism degree at Ryerson, in Toronto, before deciding that the pay was too low and the hours too long and I didn't smoke and those late-70's newsrooms were like warehouse-sized ash trays. They reeked. Couldn't do it.

There certainly is room for a robust debate on media outlets as propaganda organs for their proprietors. It would not just be academics who perceive this. Media consumers like me are well aware of it from first-hand experience of newspapers owned by the same people across several countries.

It varies from media outlet to media outlet, of course. Some, like Murdoch's Fox News, are utterly appalling. Many others do most often adhere to common ideals of objectivity except in a few "special" areas, like Israel and aspects of economic and foreign policy. Murdoch's "Times" and Black's "Telegraph" are/were the gold standard for proprietors' editorial expectations being satisfied by their employees.

The trend globally most certainly is in the wrong direction, in IMHO.

Reuters, for example, is shamelessly politically biased on Latin American and economic matters. They seem unable to write any story about political news south of Texas without playing a "Kevin Bacon" game of tracing a given leader's connection to Fidel Castro and acceptance or rejection of "leftist" ideals which, it is made implicitly clear, are bad. This is so consistent it beggars belief. Associated Press is little different, though not quite as overt.

There are many issues locally one could raise, like the way the Herald on Sunday manufactured nonsense last Sunday about Bailey Kurariki. That was a pathetic and shameful story. But it mines the "hang'em high" seam in the public consciousness....and would tend to favour a party that professes to be advocates of "Lawn' order". Maybe it was just tabloid sensationalism for fun and profit.

Maybe it is all unintended and only accidentally aids the agenda of any political group.

One could easily argue that George W Bush has done more to advance Al Qaeda's global agenda than any single person, but that doesn't mean he's an Al Qaeda mole, though could be forgiven for speculating, based on his actions and their outcomes.

Perhaps correlation isn't causation, but one can be forgiven for wondering.

I could go on.....but years and years of this stuff (I'm close to 50) removes all doubt that at least some outlets have a consistent agenda on at least come topics and that agenda is often shared among proprietors, as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch's journals and other media usually had the same views on certain subjects.....often in defiance of the verifiable facts.

In New Zealand, the most serious flaw in our media system is the excessive concentration of ownership combined with local monopolies. There should be a law, as in Australia, the US and many other larger countries, limiting cross-media ownership and the proportion of the market that can be owned by one company. In our own small, even intimate, democracy, we should not really be in the situation where all daily newspapers of any size are owned by two companies not even based here. That isn't "xenophobia". It's a prudent and careful consideration of the risks.

For one thing, media are exempt from the Electoral Finance Act. If you own a daily newspaper, you can campaign day and night for the party of your choice by printing good news about them and bad news about everyone else. No limits, no restrictions. In allowing the concentration of ownership we have, we have been wreckless with the risk of a loss of objectivity.

Should any of this be in a hand-book for journalists? You can argue that either way. Does any journalist need the big picture and a good grasp on context? I tend to think they do. Or are they operating at a different level of consciousness and they only thing they should have regard to is the story in front of them? That may indeed help keep them pure and more objective.

I guess it boils down to news versus opinion. The two do need to be separate and obviously so. I'm definitely on board for teaching any would be journalist that much.

Hope this sort of comment is what you're looking for. :-)

Cathy said...

Good on you for posting your review on INTRO. Despite it being sold out twice already I think you have read it, and the previous version, more carefully than anyone else. As one of your other blog comments mentioned, the career of a journalist is fraught with low pay and long hours, so the journalist needs to be fired up occassionally with the enthusiasm of the industry in the pursuit of truth and balance. Look at you.... you write your newspaper column, attend all sorts of talks and conferences, and now taking the time to share your outlook on our industry. Keep going with the blogs Karl

Alan Samson said...

Interesting blog, Karl, and one I would in large part agree with. The book was a hurried venture and under-planned. Having said that, the old book was badly in need of an update. My only concern from your comments is the danger of perpetuating the mythology that journalism schools are "going academic". Certainly Massey University's course is as practical as ever. The only change is that - in response to industry interests - we are teaching more than ever before. I would invite you to visit at any time: our course is delineated for every lesson of the year. We are as practical as ever...promise!

Grant Hannis said...

Hi Karl,
Thank you for posting your review of Intro. I am naturally delighted that you found so much to commend in the chapters written by my colleagues at Massey, Alan Samson, James Hollings and Cathy Strong.

As for being mystified by my chapter - which covers topics such as averages, percentage changes, definitions of common statistical measures (such as the CPI and GDP), presenting data in graphs, and understanding opinion polls and margins of error - I can only assume you are not the target market for that discussion. Certainly, a recent graduate of the Massey journalism course, whose first job was at a business newspaper, sent me a thank-you email soon after starting work, saying that the material covered in my numeracy and statistics chapter had proved invaluable for her job. Similarly, another recent graduate, while working on a newspaper overseas, found she needed to revise the material for her job, and asked me to email it to her. Granted, some of the material in the chapter is demanding, but I believe high technical standards are important.

Cheers,
Grant

Dr Grant Hannis
Head of Journalism, Massey University

Jim Tucker said...

Hi Karl

I won't be using the book on my new course - I'm busy updating chapters from the old version (which was written in 1998, with no updates other than the web chapter). That's probably no surprise, since I edited the original version and I'm undoubtedly biased about it.

The new book was supposed to have been finished in early 2007, but a lot of things seemed to get in the way. I got frustrated with it all by mid-2007 and when I left in August, 2007, only a few chapters had been done.

We could argue all day about objectivity. I think you're a bit unfair there, since I make it plain that while the idea has been under constant attack for years, it's still the best model we have and here's how you use it.

Jim Tucker

Redbaiter said...

Hmmm, no surprises here- journalism enters the new century totally discredited by partisan politics. Why do so many hold that trade in utter contempt? Because true journalistic ethics have been betrayed by a surfeit of political poseurs whose concern for the truth is far outweighed by their compulsion to advocate for left wing social views. Apparently something (going by Mr. Dufresne's review) journalism tutors endorse.

It is the journalists job to stand at the watchtower of truth. If they'd been doing that job we would have read long before now, argument that opposed the UN's propaganda on global warming. We would have read stories that reported on the success of the Iraq war and the struggle to establish a beach head for democracy in the Middle East. We would read stories that brought us the truth about child abuse, violence and crime, without pandering to the flakey politically correct concerns that Tully advocates. We would have read challenges to the "Bush lied" allegations. We would be seeing now questions asked of those who have attempted to scare the public into submitting to the global warming scam by predicting sea level rises- rises that have not occurred, and yet, the alarmists who made these predictions remain unchallenged.

CNN went so far as to strike a deal with Saddam Hussein. Dan Rather and CBS ran an anti-Bush story with obviously forged documents. "Fake but accurate" was the excuse.

Journalists- pfft- I remember old movies where crusty editors wearing green visors worked into the early morning at clattering presses determined to print stories that challenged city hall. Long gone. There's no challenges apparent these days, just a sleazy commitment to global socialism, centralized government and Stalinist style propaganda.

The blogopshere is where its at. Sure, there's deceit, and disinformation and its politically partisan. But it doesn't pretend to be some sanctimonious virtuous band of untouchables bringing truth and enlightenment while in actuality being the exact opposite.

To think I once wanted to be one of you.

With apologies to the very few journalists who actually do still pursue their craft with integrity.

ethicalmartini said...

Trying to make good journalism without some "theory" is like trying to make an omlette without breaking eggs. It ain't gonna happen.
To paraphrase Wet, Wet, Wet:
"There's theory all around us. It's everywhere we go."
Are you a Christian? Then you have a theory of the creation myth and Heaven etc.
Are you an aetheist? Then you have a theory that there is no God.
Are you a journalist then you have a theory of what is and is not news.
I must say I'm a tad disappointed at the lack of intellectual curiosity among some Kiwi journos I've met. Even fairly senior ones.
I'm even more disappointed with the intellectual dishonesty of the theory-deniers.
This is no more than attacking the player because you don't want to play ball.
It's the usual trickery - fall back on this idea of some mythical "Golden Age" in journalism and then blame academics for the problem.
If you think there ever was a Golden Age, or that somehow ex-journos who now teach journalism are to blame (and I know some of you do. Eh, Karl and Redbaiter?) you should probably read Neil Henry's disturbing book American Carnival. The subtitle is "Journalism under siege in the age of New Media".
Sorry, of course you won't bother, it's written by a pointy-head professor of journalism. Never mind that Neil Henry was for many years a foreign correspondent for the prestigious Washington Post newspaper.
If you could be bothered lifting your jaded and cynical eyes to the chapter called Freak Show, you'd see what I mean.
Perhaps Flat Earth News will be more to your liking, written by Guardian journalist Nick Davies.
No, the pointy-heads get in the way again. Academics from Cardiff University provide the data and some of the research that makes this book another explosive condemnation of the current state of journalism.
The news media is in a mess today. There's confusion about the role of so-called citizen journalism and there's the every present threat of advertorial masquerading as news. But blaming the hackademics is just crass and self-serving.
I'm quite proud of the fact that we have some theory papers in the journalism major at AUT. We balance that will excellent skills-based training. But we are a university. You wouldn't train a doctor in surgery without giving them some theory of disease, anatomy and so on. You wouldn't trust an economist who didn't understand the theory of markets or money.
I think it would be a dereliction of duty to send journalism graduates out without some understanding of the industry they're about to enter. A theoretical understanding of news values; ethics and the law of contempt; the business of the news and the impacts of digital and social media on traditional news are vital to today's journos.
Get your heads out of the sand and smell the theory.
Journalism is an intellectual pursuit. Journalists make decisions every day in the newsroom based on their understanding of journalism and news - that requires some theoretical modelling in their heads, even if they're not conscious of it.
My argument is simple: I'd rather the people collecting and writing the news were consious than unconscious.

Bearhunter said...

Good post, Karl, and indded good to see you blogging.

I haven't read the new version, but the old one was pretty good from memory, although my memories of journo school are admittedly patchy.

Part of the problem with the theory side fo things in teaching is that every single journalism student will learn far, far more in a week in a newsroom than in months in a classroom, and no amount of books will change that.

As to devoting a chapter to "what is news?" I would suggest that anyone who didn't already have a fair idea of what is and isn't news shouldn't be let within an ass's roar of a journalism school, never mind a newsroom.

Marty said...

Ah Bearhunter, how pray can one person absorb more information - shall we say "learning" - in a week in a newsroom, as opposed to "months" in a classroom?
Perhaps you'd like your no doubt wonderfully large and ursine-like incisors worked on by a young person who's had a week's experience in a dental surgery, as opposed to someone with say "months" of training in oral repair techniques.
Then again, why would we let anyone who instinctively knows nothing about teeth into dentist school.
Why do you think that journalism is any different?
PS: Ain't no bears in this neck-o-the-woods last time I looked.
By-the-by, wouldn't a book on dentristy have a chapter called "What is teeth"?

Bearhunter said...

Marty, I never mentioned dentistry, but I do know from experience (my own, that is) that any aspiring journalist will learn more in a week working in a newsroom, finding out exactly what is required for a story, finding out how to write under time pressure and with a waiting sub hanging on your shoulder. S/He will also learn how to strip a story back to the essentials because of space constraints and how to react to someone flinging a story back in his/her face with a peremptory order to rewrite it. This is not something that can be learnt in a classroom. It differes from dentistry in that the basic tools journalism students use are ones they have been (or should have been using) since early childhood: brain, language, keyboard. I don't know about you Marty, but I spent hardly any time at all drawing teeth as a youngster.
(And you misunderstand what bears are. You clearly assume they are hairy beasts red in tooth and claw and famous for apearing on Discovery Channel. Wrong sort of bear.)

Susan said...

As an outsider, it seems that the New Zealand Journalist Training Organisation should require that training material is produced in conjunction with practising journalists.

ethicalmartini said...

Bearhunter, leave aside for a moment the question of what sort of bears are there. Your comment:
finding out exactly what is required for a story, finding out how to write under time pressure and with a waiting sub hanging on your shoulder. S/He will also learn how to strip a story back to the essentials because of space constraints and how to react to someone flinging a story back in his/her face with a peremptory order to rewrite it. This is not something that can be learnt in a classroom. It differs from dentistry in that the basic tools journalism students use are ones they have been (or should have been using) since early childhood: brain, language, keyboard.

Apart from "flinging a story" back into the face of a student, the rest of what you're talking about is pretty much what happens in a journalism classroom.
I've never been fond of the "beat them into shape" school of education - it's pedagogically flawed and doesn't necessarily produce the best outcome for the student - but we do use "brain, language, keyboard" to teach the basic skills of journalism.
We teach news judgment, interviewing, writing, subbing, style and grammar, numeracy, ethics and law.
In other words, we cover the building blocks of good journalism. We also talk to our students about a range of issues in the news media - such as diversity (for example AUT journalism students spent two days on a marae last week) and they also spend time in real newsrooms.
Our students write regularly for a range of Auckland and national media, so they do deal with editors and have their copy corrected, and they're told to rewrite it on many occasions.
You're welcome (as is Karl, or anyone else who's curious) to come and spend a day with my students and see for yourself.
Our degree programmes are comprehensive and designed to produce employable graduates.
I'm happy to say that most of our graduates - those who want a journalism job - are usually snapped up by the editors who make these decisions.
M

Bearhunter said...

Fair enough ethicalmartini, perhaps this does happen in your classrooms. All I'm saying is that it didn't happen in mine. Classroom activity was mostly - perforce - theoretical and I learned more of value in my subsequent career from spending time in a newsroom actually writing stories for publication than in a classroom. Anyway, I'd love to take you up on your offer of a visit, though. If you want you can email me at bearhunternz - AT - gmail.com