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.