Archive for September, 2007

How many sources is enough?

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Leeds Trinity and All Saints journalism school has earned the ire of at least 4 regional newspaper editors by suggesting – in a study out this week – that 76% of the papers’ stories are single sourced. The journalism department analysed 2,994 stories and found most ‘rely on one person or organisation for information’ (from Press Gazette). The papers’ editors immediately criticised the report, attacking its methodology and saying it failed to take previous coverage into account (although one hopes by this they weren’t implying that local journalism has always been single sourced). But the analysis correlates with other studies that suggest cutbacks in local journalism have seen a corresponding reduction in multiple sourcing and in original, grassroots reporting (see, for example, Franklin and Williams).

Just after I read about the study yesterday I visited the Orwell archive – housed in an ominous grey building on the Hampstead Road that would have fit comfortably into the bleak landscape of 1984. Hidden on the second floor of this 1960s monstrosity is the most fantastic collection of Orwell’s notebooks, manuscripts, photographs, and journalism.

Orwell was omnivorous in his sourcing. Just looking at his notebooks for The Road to Wigan Pier shows how wide he spread his net to gather information. He pulled in everything from statistics about population size and growth, to health records, to economic figures – and meticulously stitched these together with letters from local doctors and politicians, newspaper reports, and hand drawn maps and sketches, before finally living with and amongst the people about whom he was reporting. The notebooks contain a bonanza of fantastically detailed material. My favourite is a handwritten page exactingly laying out the weekly income and spending of the family with whom he’s staying – showing how, every week, despite careful budgeting, they keep falling short of even basic necessities.

What comes across most powerfully from Orwell’s notebooks is his genuine desire to understand. Living with people and just telling their stories wasn’t enough – he wanted to work out why they were living in the conditions they were, what effect government policies were having, what people were doing to make things better – or worse. His commitment to properly understanding his subjects, through as many sources as he could get his hands on, is an object lesson to the rest of us.

Written by Martin Moore

September 21st, 2007 at 7:32 am

If you haven't done the sums, best to be conservative

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Ploughing through the many many column inches written about the Northern Rock crisis for this week’s Media Standards Trust debate (Informing or Inflaming? The media and the crisis at Northern Rock) it was striking how conservative most reporters and commentators were. Libby Purves was one of the few to break with the pack (‘How dare they tell us savers not to panic’) but generally the revolutionary sounding headlines (‘Police called to break-up Northern Rock panic queues as customers withdraw millions’) belied articles that, when not describing the number of queuers and their average age, implied this was all – in the words of Alan Greenspan – ‘irrational exuberance’.

Few, however, were able to back this up with evidence. Outside comparing the amount of savings Northern Rock held with the value of its loans (equivalent to looking at your monthly bills then tipping out the piggy bank) the explanations for the crisis and prognoses of whether and how it might spread, were rare indeed.

Perhaps many papers felt we public weren’t up to distinguishing between CDOs and NINJA loans. Still, it might help people act more rationally in future if we were given a glimpse under the bonnet.

Written by Martin Moore

September 19th, 2007 at 4:05 pm

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Give us more editorial judgement, not less

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In his defence of the BBC’s handling of the Northern Rock crisis, Peter Horrocks writes that ‘it’s not the BBC’s job to tell the audience what to do with its money’ and this includes keeping people calm or giving them advice. ‘We judge it is right for us’ Horrocks says on the BBC Editors Blog, ‘to report the reassurance being offered by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority and our correspondents have offered the judgement that those reassurances are legitimate’.

Read this last bit back again: ‘and our correspondents have offered the judgement that those reassurances are legitimate’. Call it ‘judgement’ if you like but to me this sounds an awful lot like advice.

And why not? Why shouldn’t correspondents who are expert in their field advise people whether the government’s reassurances are reasonable? Equally, why shouldn’t they say whether Northern Rock has been well or badly managed (something which correspondents seem to have been peculiarly quiet about)?

The BBC is becoming worryingly reluctant to exercise its editorial judgment. Damagingly undercut by the Hutton Inquiry, this has more recently been undermined by John Bridcut’s ‘impartiality review’ and by the scandals that have rocked broadcasting.

But amongst the many things the Northern Rock crisis shows is the desperate need for probing journalism and editorial judgment. Journalists with the intelligence and tenacity to thread their way through the hugely complex financial system and explain it in a way that allows us public to make rational decisions about what we should do. Only with more information and more understanding do we have a hope of avoiding another panic in the future.

Written by Martin Moore

September 18th, 2007 at 3:29 pm

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Propping up the Fourth Estate

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If you compared the UK media industry to a house, then its beams took another big couple of knocks last week.

In commercial broadcasting Michael Grade called on Saturday for an end to all public service obligations. In other words to get rid of any requirement to make childrens’ programmes, religious programmes, news, etc. Although this goes against the swell of popular sentiment (particularly as regards news provision) it goes with the grain of technological and market developments. And since OFCOM has seemed much keener to go with the grain than against it (e.g. see ‘New News, Future News’) perhaps the regulator will not be entirely unsympathetic to Grade’s view.

In the public sector, the BBC’s long held conviction that it must must provide something for everyone is now being challenged not only by its commercial rivals but by strong voices within the Corporation itself (most notably John Humphries and John Sweeney). The BBC should focus on what other people can’t or won’t provide, not try to be all things to all people, they say. Summarised misleadingly as the ‘quality vs quantity’ argument (also known as the ‘market failure’ approach), this is the only route that makes sense, David Cox wrote in the Guardian last Friday. There should be a “shift to a smaller, less expensive BBC,” Cox argued, “focused not so much on competing with commercial broadcasters as on delivering the kind of programming that they can’t be expected to provide themselves”.

The problem is, if you play both these scenarios out you have a much bigger commercial sector wholly committed to ratings and profitability, and an increasingly ghettoized public sector buffeted by political concerns about how to secure its future funding. Not really the healthy ‘mixed market model’ Britain has been so proud of these last five decades.

No wonder James Purnell has decided to form a media task force / think tank. Let’s hope they have big enough brains to work out how to avoid this.

Written by Martin Moore

September 17th, 2007 at 3:01 pm

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