Informing the public debate
Sometimes journalists become lazy. When this happens, the news they produce becomes superficial and shallow. They take information at face value. They fail to dig deeper. This is weak journalism.
In fact, in some cases, it stops being journalism, and becomes a production process where information is republished without any analysis, context or added value.
Journalists become channels for public relations material and propaganda, failing to apply any critical evaluation of the material being processed.
There are ways journalists can focus on the stories that really matter to their target audience, and invest time and effort in order to explore those stories fully.
This proactive journalism tool should help. It’s a tool used by Media Helping Media in media development and commercial media strategy work for several years. It’s been developed from an idea by Dr. Eric Loo, a journalist and senior lecturer in journalism.
There are five steps involved in proactive journalism.
The first, observing, is what most journalists already do; the problem is that many stop there.
That’s unfortunate, because there are at least four more steps to take in order to produce rich journalism that informs the public debate.
The other four important steps in proactive journalism are learning, analysing, reflecting and contextualising.
Let’s look at each in more detail, starting with observing.
This is what most journalists do every day.
They watch, listen, sense and absorb information, which they then put together to form a news story.
But even this simple step is often executed badly. Perhaps they are in a rush, or under pressure. Perhaps they think that the news release or wires copy they have been given works fine without any extra effort.
But if journalists just reproduce what they have been given, they are letting both their audience and their media organisation down. They can do better.
Even with the first stage in proactive journalism, journalists need to be digging deeper.
If you have been given a news release, or have attended an organised event and have just heard a speech, you don’t have a news story.
All you have at that stage is some material from which you can start to construct a news story.
Ask yourself whether what you have been told matches what you have witnessed?
If not challenge those circulating the information, and contact those affected. Is what you have been told reflecting the views of one particular group of people?
If so what other voices are needed to complete the story. Is the material critical of others? If so they need to be given the chance to reply.
Are those sharing the information with you making strong claims? If they are then what they are saying needs to be tested with independent data.
Your job is to listen to what those involved in the story are saying and question every assumption.
You must never accept information at face value. Most people will be trying to push their point of view; your job is to reflect those views in a wider context, not simply repeat them in isolation.
Try to get a sense of what might be behind the story in terms of the other actors involved. There will usually be at least two sides to every story, but often many more voices to be heard.
And never report what you have been given as fact, always use qualifying words such as ‘claimed’, ‘alleged’ and ‘said’.
So far the above is fairly straightforward, now let’s look at the next step, learning.
This is where you need to make sense of what you are being told. This will involve researching the validity of the information being shared.
You need to challenge everything. If you are in any doubt at all, you need to seek clarification.
You must never repeat what you don’t understand or can validate and justify. If the issue isn’t clear, you need to find new angles in order to help people understand old and current events.
The learning process means that you retain an open mind and strive to find new ways to explore the issue you are uncovering.
Make a list of all the points you don’t understand, and go through those points one by one until you are absolutely clear, and can explain even a complicated case or situation in plan and straightforward language.
As you do, you will uncover new angles, and you will become aware of information gaps that you will need to fill before you broadcast or publish the information.
At this stage you will have three elements to your story.
- What you have been told,
- What you have observed,
- What you have learnt.
Now you can move on to the next step, which is analysing what you have got.
A simple way to do this is to make a list of what you have so far. This will include what you have been told, what you have observed, and what you have learnt.
You need to list all the significant elements of a story and then assess the likely impact on the lives of the people involved and others indirectly affected by the events you are covering.
You should also consider the reach of the story in terms of how many people it will affect. It could be that there are far more people involved than was apparent when the story first broke.
And once you have expanded the material you have on the story, you need to step back and reflect on what you have found.
You now have;
- What you have been told,
- What you have observed,
- What you have learnt,
- What you have deducted through analysing the evidence you have uncovered.
This is where it might be helpful to consult someone. It might be the editor, a producer or a colleague. It doesn’t matter. You just need someone to help you assess what you have uncovered.
During this process you need to ensure that you have included all significant voices and views. You need to challenge all assumptions, especially your own.
Most of all, you need to ensure you apply editorial integrity, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and accuracy to your news gathering.
It could be that the story you thought you had has changed. It could be that the exiting top line you had thought up for a headline is no longer valid. It could be that the story is weak and needs to be dropped, or it could be that the story is the strongest your newsroom has covered this year and is going to win a prize.
You won’t be able to judge that on your own; including colleagues is essential if you are to reach the right conclusion as to the strength of the story.
Now you can begin to add context to your report.
This is where you need to offer information that will help the audience understand the significance of the news event you are covering.
The death of 10 people following flooding is tragic, but if the death toll was 1,000 the previous year, that information needs to be added to put the latest events into context.
The deaths will be devastating for the local community who have lost loved ones, their livelihood and perhaps their homes, but you need to know whether warnings were given in the past and why they were not heeded.
So you need to look for patterns. Has this story happened before? When? What was the outcome? You also need to look for local, regional, national and international comparisons where appropriate.
It might be that by taking a wider view you uncover a much bigger story. Does a recent controversial contract for a hydro-electric dam downstream have any bearing on flooding?
Check the archives, explore the history of the story, continue to research deeper in order to get to the root of the matter. This is all part of the process of finding out why a story is important and adding that context so that you enhance the understanding of the audience.
You need to find out where it fits into the bigger picture. You need to uncover the relationships between what you are covering and previous events.
It will be essential to find out what part politics and business plays in the story; perhaps there is a suspicion of corruption and dishonest dealing.
We discuss more about these ideas, and how they can be put into practice, in our training module about story development.
In that module, we take the story of flooding in Vietnam and apply two of the tools in this series – the proactive journalism tool and the story development tool – in order to squeeze all the information out of the event for the benefit of our audience.
This is because you work on behalf of the audience. They are not in a position to speak to the powerful and influential, you are. You work on their behalf. And to do your job properly you need to be professional in the way you treat the information you are sharing with your audience.
If, after reading this you are thinking that you and your journalists don’t have the time to do the above, consider whether it’s worth doing fewer stories better.
There are some tips on how to priorities effort in our training modules about story weighting and the journalism value matrix.
Whatever tools you use, your job is to inform the public debate. You do this by digging where others are afraid to dig, by scrutinising the executive, by holding the powerful to account, and by shining a light in dark places. All these actions are part of proactive journalism.
And if you are not challenging the information you are given, you are failing as a journalist and are just providing an outlet for PR (public relations) information and propaganda.