Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Climate change camp good, prejudice bad

Tory boy called off and shot in a corner... I've just walked up to the climate camp (yes, it's that near) and had all my prejudices confounded. The camp is small and tidy and contained, with not a scrap of litter visible and the campers are friendly, articulate and committed. I'm going to pop back again later in the week. What this has made me realise - again - is how important it is for journalists to get out and see what's going on with their own eyes. This isn't going to make them "objective" - nothing can do that - but at least they'll get some context and realise that what they've assumed isn't always right. All the more worrying that the trend in newsrooms is to have journalists chained to their desks churning out press releases and repeating distorted stories which they could report truthfully if they were allowed out of the office.

No objectivity over climate camp

A big story is unfolding on my doorstep, which is why I don't dare to tear myself away from my contextual chapter to go and see what's going on. I just know I'm not going to be able to behave with journalistic impartiality -precisely because it's on my doorstep. It's the climate camp, which seems to think it's a good idea to come and camp on Blackheath, just down the road. The very thought brings out the worst of my middle-class, Tory boy side (I'm ashamed to discover I've still got one). All I can think of is how much litter and mess and chaos they're going to cause. Never mind about saving the planet. If I was assigned to cover this story, I like to think I'd do a professional job but it very neatly illustrates the total fallacy of journalistic "objectivity". The very idea that journalists don't have any agenda and they can somehow report from a blank slate is complete rubbish.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The first draft...of many

After three months of reading, I'm now going to force myself to write a draft (doubtless the first of many) of my "contextual" chapter, in which I try and make sense of everything I've read and link it to my research. I know it's going to be good for me when I start, like five-a-day, or going for a run before work. And it's not as if I'm not used to deadlines. Maybe what's putting me off is that every time I try to summon up some of the arguments and ideas from what I've read recently, it all slides out of my head. Maybe it's because my journalistic instinct would be to start by going into newsrooms and interviewing people about how their jobs are changing in an online environment, rather than reading what other people say about it. But academics clearly work the other way round - lots of reading, then some drafting, then the fieldwork, where you might start to find out something new. Sometime next year.

I never thought I'd say this but too much reading may not be a good thing. Order will come through writing. Or at least I hope so. Otherwise the next six years are going to be hard going.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Journalists under the microscope

One surprise to me when I started my research was how big the gap was between what academics wrote about journalism and journalistic practice and what I knew from experience actually happened in a newsroom. I've blogged about this before but I'm coming back to it because I've spent the last week reading the small number of ethnographic studies carried out in newsrooms, in which academics actually spend significant amounts of time in a newsroom absorbing and questioning what goes on, as opposed to just dropping in and carrying out interviews. Valuable though the latter is (and I'll be doing interviews as part of my field work later), ethnographic studies must provide a deeper insight, especially for academics who have never worked as journalists. As ethnographers suggest, such studies provide important insights into the process of journalism, as opposed to the end product.

But with a few honourable exceptions, including my colleague at Brunel University, Sarah Niblock, ethnographies seem thin on the ground, especially in the UK. Why is this? Money, possibly. It's pretty difficult to spend months in a newsroom if you have to earn a living at the same time (a problem I'm already confronting when thinking about the shape of my research). A generous chunk of external funding, of the sort US academics seem to be able to access, is very helpful. Time, definitely. And access. Many academics haven't had the newsroom contacts necessary to persuade journalists to let them observe and interrogate them for long periods of time. But as Niblock and Machin (2006) suggest, this is changing as more journalists move into the academy bringing with them useful contact books and access to newsrooms

This must be a good thing.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Shattered glass

In a bid (how's that for journalese?) to get back into a journalistic mindset after my holiday, I've just watched a DVD of Shattered Glass, in which New Republic reporter Stephen Glass is painfully and gradually exposed as a liar who makes up contacts and stories. I've seen this film before but this time the manic Preppie playing Stephen Glass was almost too painful to watch. And the central question is never answered. Why didn't any of the deskloads of staff (this was the 1990s, so there were still staff) notice what was going on? So much for the layers of US-style fact checking and shots of journalists covering each others' copy with vindictive red pen. If the rival online news website could check out the "facts" that Glass supplied in his copy and discover they crumbled on investigation, why couldn't the editors at the New Republic?

Back to the PhD research.