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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Is journalism dead, or merely dying?

27th August 2014

Above and beyond the knotty question of how best to regulate newspapers, as well as how to preserve the freedom of the press, possibly by turning our attention to individual journalists, through some form of licensing, lurk two bigger issues. First, what journalism is for in a modern world. And whether in fact, as a form of communication, it is dead or dying.

It is fruitful to use Lord Reith’s mantra for the old BBC, the one he more or less single-handedly invented. He determined that the BBC’s mission was for education, information and entertainment, and he was adamant they be listed in that order. Entertainment, in any case, came a very poor third in this list. Reith’s great mission to the British public was to educate it. How far has that corporation fallen, to today’s silly and shoddy output.

For print journalism there has always been a tension between information and entertainment, going back to the 17th century, when broadsheet prints contained lurid details of highway robbery and mayhem, interspersed with crucial commercial information about shipping movements.

The eighteenth century saw a prolonged battle to allow the proceedings of parliament to be recorded and disseminated. This was alongside the continuance of entertaining scandals of misdeeds and dalliances. That century was witness too, to the scatological cartoonery of Gillray; today still far more shocking than a Ralph Steadman drawing.

So far, so good. But, jumping to the early 21st century, the evidence is that, even among the hitherto serious newspapers, there has been a slow slide toward entertainment at every level, usurping both information – and certainly education. Front pages of The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Telegraph daily vie with each other in presenting some lightweight – usually visual – counter to the serious news they insist they otherwise exist to promote.

Worse, opinion pieces abound, to such an extent that they frequently threaten to overwhelm the ‘real’ news they tediously pick through. Of course, opinion pieces, besides being easy to obtain from the chattering classes, are cheap. Newspapers of all shades, no doubt argue that, with the inexorable rise of social media, they are merely reflecting the zeitgeist of the age.

Along with the rise of social media has gone so-called ‘citizen’ journalism, another supremely cheap – in every sense – form of an old black art. Like black magic, though, citizen journalism weaves a dangerous spell, that of appearing to be a better, more immediate reality than any truth a professional journalist, writing for a professional journal, can hope to emulate. The death of the latter, then, is apparently signaled all around.

It is a false dawn, but a deceptive one, that needs to be challenged.

One definition of journalism, and an heuristic of lasting value, is that it is a rough and ready – and immediately available – version of history, later to be written up, as the totality of events becomes clearer, documents become available, memories are mulled over, and those same events re-considered with the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight.

Even if we accept this is a fair evaluation of what journalism is, it requires a careful consideration of current events by professionally trained observers, just as history demands a highly qualified group of men and women to sift through the past, with their judgment and learning to the forefront. Even applying these basic academic rules does not obviate the disagreements that history throws up. Just take a look at the current debates raging over the origins – and worth – of the First World War.

The key, though, is professionalism, which is why any amount of ‘eyewitness’ accounts of even the most trivial event, along with the de rigueur camera-phone or iPad screen shot, is bound to create a dangerous ‘false’ reality. Only journalists, in the very best traditions of practitioners, will get it right, however inchoately.

One very modern problem is that of information overload and, with it, the ‘noise’ it creates, obscuring important questions and their resolution. There are too many outlets, both mass media, and social media, and too much cacophony from the entertainment end of the business. It all leads to an understandable confusion among audiences, however educated or media savvy.

Worst of all, it leads to far too much repetition by broadcasters – relying on a flawed piece of 30-year old research that purported to show mass audiences for TV news understood almost nothing unless it was endlessly repeated.

So, in answer to the questions: what is journalism, and is it dead or dying, what are we left with?

To the first part we ought to be able to answer easily: stick with Reith and in the order he gave: educate audiences in every story, by sticking solelyto the facts; inform them with the best of those facts available to the best and most probing questions that can be asked.

Finally, only entertain them where it is flagged up as just that, in what ought to be the least significant section of any newspaper. Magazines are another (no pun intended) issue altogether and should not to be included here. This is about unadorned news.

And, in answer to the question, is journalism dead or dying, it is certainly looking pretty sick, to many people, in and out of the business. But – and journalists above all will appreciate this – one easy answer is to stop drinking at the cheaply run table of celebrity and return to the austere, but ultimately more rewarding fount of factual knowledge because, therein, lies credibility as well as true fulfillment – for us all.

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