Friday, February 12, 2010

Two months in: Thoughts of a new journalist

In the preface to his book “Not for Publication”, ABC journalist Chris Masters noted how the practice of journalism was imprecise. Masters said journalists are constantly in a rush “calculating the odds of what will become objective truth, based on limited primary information and intelligence.” Faced with this apparently insurmountable difficulty, Masters concluded that journalists survive only by “being right more often than not”. In this world of limitless possibilities and limited time and information, it is judgement that sets apart a good journalist from a mediocre one. (photo of Roma Saleyards by Derek Barry)

Barely two months into my career as a journalist, I have no idea yet which side of the fence I’m going to end up on. I’m confident that in the dozens of stories I’ve written so far I’ve been right more often than I’ve been wrong. But the wrong ones are more memorable because they have consequences that you know about. Very few people ring in to tell you how wonderful such and such a story was (though it has happened and I’m delighted when it happens). But I always know when I get it wrong. People ring in, write in or arrive at the office telling me exactly how and where I got a matter wrong. I’ve had people in tears, people irate, and people shaking their head at the obvious venality of journalists and all because I printed something in the newspaper that was wrong, or misquoted someone or misspelt a name or missed a vital detail.

Imprecision is a daily hazard in a busy environment. And the fact is that much of the news I report has unsavoury consequences for someone, so I can face abuse even when I get the facts right. The other day, a young woman crashed her car into a bottle tree on a nearby street. The car was a write-off but the woman wasn’t seriously hurt. We found out about it and took some photos of the ambulances and police. Someone told us her name and we printed that in the story including an eye-witness account that she was seen running across the road to where her boyfriend works.

Today the lady appeared in the office with her Mum and both were visibly upset and angry. The girl said we had made a laughing stock of her and “everyone knew about it”. Her Mum wanted to know why we printed the name when other reports didn’t have that detail. I defended the story as factually accurate and said we were duty bound to our readers to print the name if we knew it. After 15 minutes of heated discussion, they left slightly mollified but still very unhappy.

Are newspapers really that powerful still that my words can have such a reaction? The answer is obviously yes. I was in a pub last night where I struck up a conversation with a young Canadian lad who had just started in the oil industry here in Roma. He was initially willing to have a friendly chat but when I told him I was a journalist, he immediately clammed up. “I’m not allowed to talk to the media,” he told me. I wasn’t after him for a story but both he and I realised the conversation was finished. The oil and gas industries are not alone in their press paranoia. All the big companies and government departments here have similar rules. No-one from council (except the mayor, CEO and communications officer) can talk to me, nor can anyone from the department of health.

And so when there is a problem such as that arose last week at Roma Hospital with mass resignations of doctors, I found it difficult to get at an objective truth of what happened. I couldn't speak to anyone at the hospital and got shunted to a media unit in Brisbane where I got a carefully crafted, bland and heavily spun message that only vaguely approximated to the truth. It may not have been Queensland Health’s fault that the doctors resigned but their caginess in providing an answer only serves to increase suspicion there is a problem. And so media policies designed to keep an organisation “on message” usually turn out to be counter-productive. Journalists and the public become cynical when constantly provided a diet of unrelenting positivity. And those with a genuine grievance within the organisation will spill the beans anonymously (as has happened at Roma Hospital) and often with a lot more openness than if they were allowed to speak freely on the record.

I’m making it sound like I am not enjoying myself here and nothing could be further from the truth. I love the town and I am delighted people are reading my work and engaging with it. I get a kick out of that and hope that The Western Star is providing a genuinely useful service of describing Roma and the surrounding district to itself. But in the absence of objective truth, I certainly need to develop a thicker skin about criticism and get over my unrealistic desire to please everyone. It is simply impossible. But some things are possible. Getting people’s names right 100 percent of the time would be a useful start. It would not only eliminate a lot of criticism, it is also a basic courtesy to the reader.

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