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Journalists need to lift their game before they’re regulated into oblivion

Big day tomorrow. The Leveson Inquiry report in the United Kingdom is being released overnight, and no doubt media inquiry watchers like me will be up all night downloading and clicking through it. But…

Journalists must be open to change. Camera image from www.shutterstock.com

Big day tomorrow. The Leveson Inquiry report in the United Kingdom is being released overnight, and no doubt media inquiry watchers like me will be up all night downloading and clicking through it.

But three apparently unrelated statements on media regulation both in the UK and in Australia have caused me the most concern about what Leveson might report tomorrow.

Last year, British journalist Nick Davies told the Leveson Inquiry that newspapers can no longer be trusted to regulate themselves.

On The Conversation earlier this month Brian McNair suggested that the role of editor-in-chief at the BBC would be akin to the role of “editorial policeman over his or her journalists”.

And last week, Crikey reported British lawyer Charlotte Harris as saying “media companies can’t be trusted to objectively balance the public interest and individuals’ right to privacy”.

This public acquiescence – apparently unchallenged – to the proposition that journalists and their employers cannot be trusted and somehow need policing is damaging.

It’s damaging if it’s right, and it’s even more damaging if it’s wrong. What’s worse overall is that each of these statements and plenty more like them seems to presume that journalism itself will not, and cannot, change and improve.

That’s what people are really looking for: change and improvement in how journalists work and what journalists do.

This assumption that journalism cannot change, is the ultimate black eye for working journalists, for the thousands of journalism students at universities around the world, and for journalism researchers like me whose main professional aim is to improve journalism from within.

It assumes that journalists are Luddite traditionalists who are “unwilling to change” at any cost, and I know from more than 30 years in the business that this certainly does not apply to all journalists around the world.

But clearly it does apply to some in our professional community who really do seem to think that journalism cannot, and should not change, let alone improve.

This is the key point which I think has been missed in the current round of hand-wringing about journalism, its foundational theories, its practices, and its workforce. Somewhere along the line a conflict has been set up between tradition and innovation in journalism which doesn’t exist, but which has become the main battleground.

Superficially, tradition is the opposite of innovation. If you suggest change, you’re suggesting rejection of decades or even centuries of rusted-on practices.

But this is a logical fallacy because those same rusted-on practices started out, in their own day, as revolutionary innovations. An original idea winds up being used as a weapon against another later innovation, and against change in general.

If this happens and innovation is rejected from journalism, it’s goodnight to our profession, and any benefits which we might have once brought to society will die too.

We have to start on the long trek towards figuring out how journalism can be changed and improved from within. This will involve unpacking and putting under intense scrutiny all those allegedly unchangeable things about journalism which have resisted innovation for so long: how we interview people, how we compose our reports, the ways we approach our work, and even the tools we use.

We must cast our net as wide as possible to look for something new: not just what the community hates about journalism and wants to forbid it from doing; but a shared understanding of what journalism can contribute to our society and how it can be an engine for improvement, not just a watchdog for tradition.

It’s obvious to me that if journalists - not just publishers - don’t take a firm hand and show the community that we can change and improve what we do and that we can make a positive and productive contribution to society, then we will be regulated out of effective existence because people will have given up trusting us. Some already have.

There may soon be so many laws surrounding journalism, and editorial police wandering around, that even the good that journalism does will be covered in yellow legal paperwork.

At the moment, governments, inquiries and some commentators seem caught in the headlights of spelling out what journalists shouldn’t do, and I can understand that. It’s been a difficult and painful road to Leveson and Finkelstein.

But before the story is finally written and new policies and regulations are written, let’s hear from more ordinary working journalists who are prepared to show that it’s possible for journalism to change and to measurably improve itself, just as it daily requires other people in the community to do the same.

The annual Walkley Awards for quality in journalism are to be announced tomorrow night. Perhaps that would be an appropriate time for an announcement from journalism that change is in the air.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Journalism could start with being objective and accurate in its reporting.
    It could move on to not illegally gaining information and breaching the privacy Act.
    It could finish by having a code of conduct that, when broken, leaves the transgressor with tangible sanction.
    Oh, I nearly forgot - it could also use proportion and balance in its reporting so that spurious counter claims to established expert commentary is not given disproportionate weighting.
    Unfortunately all these things may require the addition of philosophy of science, critical thinking and ethics into journalism curricula. It would also require a profession interested in policing its own.

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  2. Harvey Westbury

    Not being a dinosaur

    I'm not sure whether its journalists or the organisations they work for that need to change, though I agree things need to change. The quality of journalism as practised in Australia, be it print, radio, blogs or TV is, in my opinion, very low. TV reporting is the poorest, even though its really just infotainment. However, it is perhaps the most important in forming perceptions, which is all a lot of people base their opinion on. Newspapers are not much better, with even the so-called broadsheets…

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  3. Lynne Newington
    Lynne Newington is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Researcher

    Well I don't know what changes tomorrow may bring, but sections of the Australian community certainly owe trusted Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy an enormous debt, with her doggedness in bringing justice to so many in the Hunter Valley region.
    This National Royal Commission would never have gained the momentum needed to bring it to pass.
    The relevant Fairfax editor should commended for permitting her to have her own head.

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  4. Alvin Stone

    logged in via Facebook

    The whole improvement of journalism can start with a removal of self regulation. There has been very little serious enforcement of the work of reporters/editors/news managers, just the odd slap on the wrist and no fine of consequence.

    The second possible change is for the editors and news managers to learn to distinguish between what is news and what is opinion.

    Basic training might help the subs at places like The Australian to ensure their headlines and introductions match the content of…

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  5. Carol Daly

    Director

    It is almost too late for main stream journalists in Australia as they become increasingly irrelevant to my search for information and facts.
    The whole lack of any evidence against the PM in the latest saga pursued by a couple of fanatical journalists with the complete backing of the Australian editors and group think in the Parliamentary press gallery is just one more
    example of journalists being willing mouthpieces for one side of policies at the expanse of democracy. Disgraceful.
    This is why I no longer consume any newspapers, commercial tv and radio, and sceptically view the ABC and SBS.
    Why would I pay for such lies, poor judgement and opinion parading as facts? Journalism is currently just PR, cut and paste into other platforms by lazy people called journalists.

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    1. John Cokley

      Associate Professor in Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Carol Daly

      You're obviously a cheesed-off former customer of many media organisations, and exactly the type of person I want my students at Swinburne to find out about. In any other profession, if you find out about cheesed-off customers you get out there and sit down with them, and ask them how the product can be improved and made more appealing and valuable, and then you DO THAT, change and improve the product. I've been a journalist AND in small business since 1981 and it constantly mystifies me that journalists as a whole don't make that simple link between product quality and satisfied customers and sales. And it doesn't mean dumbing down the journalism or just writing "nice" stories ... when engineers discover a defect in a car, they redesign the thing and make it better using better engineering and better ingredients. this is also possible in journalism. really.

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  6. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Just a quick little thought experiment...

    Suppose the whole Murdoch media empire magically disappeared tomorrow, just how much of a problem would there still be?

    It obviously wouldn't be zero, but maybe it would be so much less that there simply woudn't be the level of distrust and cynicism that this article rightly fears...

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    1. John Cokley

      Associate Professor in Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      The rise of citizen journalism is something that might prove a suitable counterweight to the Murdoch empire ... it means more diversity, more voices and less critical mass in consolidated hands.

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  7. Meg Thornton

    Dilletante

    I don't know how many other people I speak for (so I'll presume I'm just speaking for myself) but my scepticism regarding journalistic reform and ethical conduct isn't so much directed at the journalists themselves as at the proprietors of the big media companies. While individual journalists may well have sterling codes of personal ethics, and a real reluctance to perform acts which run counter to their principles, the truth remains that in order to keep a job, earn a promotion or retain a bonus…

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    1. John Cokley

      Associate Professor in Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      Hi Meg - very politely, I think you've missed the point of my article. At the moment lawyers and politicians and ethicists are fixated on make tougher regulations to pull journalism "into line". What I think is a better strategy is that we journalists pull together from within our professional community to improve what we do and how we do it, not just minimise mistakes but actually offer something better in journalism.

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  8. Tony Grant

    Student

    A test for journalists...two teams drawn up...team Gillard plus family and team Abbott plus family.

    The journalists have to write a document less than 2500 words on both leaders from 1940 or thereabouts including their voyager from Wales and England.

    I dare anybody to do a historical and look for characteristics of determination/honesty/loyalty and "patriotism" with these two leaders...it reinforced my total disrespect for Tony Abbott...family Abbott were not for "King and Country" therefore, why is Abbott such a monarchist?

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  9. Dionne Lew

    logged in via Twitter

    John I agree with you that unless self-regulation starts to work regulation is inevitable. The journalists I know tend to be smart and ethical and so are many of their editors. It's the deeper culture of media - that includes the creators, deliverers and consumers - that establish this cycle.

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    1. John Cokley

      Associate Professor in Journalism at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Dionne Lew

      Thanks Dionne, but I'm not really advocating better self-regulation. I'm calling for a better "shared understanding of what journalism can contribute to our society and how it can be an engine for improvement, not just a watchdog for tradition." Regulation is what lawyers do ... improving journalism is something we journalists can and should do, and it will take some radical thinking and radical change to do it.

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