All that guff

One of the comments on my rant about the failings of newspapers last week made it obvious to me how I’d confused two separate issues, which I thought I’d take a moment to clarify.

For example, I wrote this paragraph:

Is it worth the sensationalism and scaremongering? The endlessly inaccurate and dangerous science reporting? The pointless and news-free lifestyle articles? Do newspapers that prioritise stories based on celebrities and spectacle rather than importance to the world deserve to exist?

There are two very distinct problems wrapped up together there.

The first kind of problem is inaccuracy in reporting. The kind of thing Ben Goldacre writes about regarding science reporting, although I doubt all other topics are fault-free. The problem isn’t the topics covered, but the way in which they’re written about.

There are three possible causes of these inaccuracies. The first is an honest mistake or misunderstanding. It happens to all of us, corrections are issued, must try harder. The second is a lack of knowledge and/or research on the part of the journalist. Maybe cuts in staff mean people are writing outside their field of expertise, or they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Either way, it’s not good and shouldn’t happen. The third cause of inaccuracy is to be intentionally misleading. Facts get twisted or ignored to make a story and headline sound better and sell more papers. Even worse, and I can only imagine the punishments I’d mete out for this if I ruled the world.

So that’s the first kind of problem with the content of newspapers. Inaccuracy. It’s an old complaint (once upon a time we only used to sarcastically joke, “It must be true, I read it in the paper!” rather than “…I read it on the web!”) but an important complaint. As I said in that earlier piece, after knowing enough about a topic to recognise one or two inaccurate articles, it’s hard to trust that newspaper ever again.

The second kind of problem is harder to pin down: all the articles that aren’t “news”. We could divide most articles into “news” and “non-news”, probably with a big hazy grey area in the middle. But even within the “news” pile — topical events that people should know about — what’s news for one person is irrelevant to another. I don’t care about celebrities, soaps, royals and all that guff, but it’s news for many people unfortunately. I know roughly where I’d draw the line, but you’d draw it somewhere else.

Also, look at that big “non-news” pile. All the lifestyle articles. The pieces about music, films, TV, books. The columnists. This isn’t news, and I don’t want it in my newspaper. If I could buy the Guardian, for example, without G2 and the other supplements I’d be much happier.

Except… amidst all this there are sometimes fascinating articles that don’t count as “news”. Can I get rid of that 90% of space-filling tat and just keep the bits I like?

I would love a newspaper that eschewed anything remotely sensationalist or celebrity, and that didn’t pad itself out with non-news articles. I want a newspaper. In reality what this means is different for everyone.

So there we go. A post that prods very gently at some insolvable problems isn’t nearly as much fun to write or, I suspect, read as a righteous rant that ignores the subtleties. Sorry about that. But I wanted to clarify what I glossed over earlier.

These are two distinct problems — inaccuracies and stuff that isn’t news — but they both undercut arguments by people like David Simon about the importance of newspapers. They’re the kind of problems newspaper people love to point out on the internet while ignoring closer to home.

Comments

  • I concur 100% and then some. Swine Flu was a big example in NYC. Where’s the investigative reporting? Going beyond press releases? Why would a drowning news industry voluntarily add to its confluence with so many other industries (media, fashion, food, etc) that have nothing to do with news? I want smarter reporting on _news_.

3 Aug 2009 at Twitter

3 Aug 2009 in Links