journalism for beginners

Yesterday I mentioned the 1939 Spectator diarist’s fear of what might happen when the newly invented cheap ball point pen got into the hands of the “inexpert and frankly incompetent”. Of course we’ve gone way beyond that now.

Now, anyone who owns a digital camera thinks he is a photographer; anyone with a computer is a journalist and anyone with a mobile phone is an on-the-spot reporter. And very few of us have any professional training in journalism.

I’m not saying I’m entirely innocent of this temptation, having had several foto-reportajes published simply on the strength of ideas rather than any photographic skill. I didn’t even own a digital camera at the time I pitched the ideas, but bought one with the money I would receive on publication. Mind you, I do have someone back in the studio who’s worked in publishing for decades and could tell me the difference between RGB and CMYK and between screen resolution and what was needed for a glossy magazine, so I was able to provide perfectly adequate pictures, even if they weren’t exceptional.

Photos aren’t the worst of it, though, it’s the texts that really worry me. Particularly, but not exclusively, texts on the web. There’s this infinite Chinese whispers effect of ideas echoing on through the ether forever.

I suspect that most of us were brought up with the printed word before we came to on-screen information, and we’re still so used to believing that what is printed is automatically authoritative that we forget to check the sources. This article on the BBC discusses how an inaccurate “fact” can be repeated, and how repetition compounds the problem.

But not even the BBC are error-free when it comes to picking up and propagating inaccurate stories on the web, as is shown this week by their comments following a story warning of possible worms in Apple Macs.

In a nutshell, it was said that Macintosh had changed their policy and now recommend the use of virus checkers; a lot of news sites picked up on this information and repeated it. Later it was pointed out that the recommendation wasn’t actually new at all… It’s a bit complicated, but if you’re interested this (updated) BBC report seems to explain it quite well.

Of course we can usually trust the BBC, and there are certain UK newspapers I’d be inclined to rely on. But informaiton on the web comes from global sources and how am I supposed to know which Turkish or Australian newspapers are trustworthy and which I should question as I would the UK tabloids?

Another problem is with sites like digg and reddit: a story is pushed to the front page because it’s interesting, but few readers bother to look at the date of the original. I was reading a fascinating piece the other day on how internet use affects a person’s memory, only to find that it referred to five-year-old research. In web terms, that’s practically pre-history.

And, of course, there’s the problem of distinguishing between fact and opinion. We take the information we find on-line, and comment about it in our blogs. There, the need to be original and interesting over-rides professional objectivity, and it’s up to the reader to imagine how much is actual fact and how much is embellishment on the part of the blogger.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any distinction between reporting and opinion. We all have opinions and think other people should listen to them. Which I guess is exactly what I’m doing here.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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