All we want are the facts

I know why they do it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I’m talking about what our metropolitan newspapers are doing to the front page: They’re taking away the news.

They do so because they believe the news cycle has been captured by digital platforms and the gap between deadline and delivery means the news is as stale as yesterday’s bread by the time the newspaper reaches the reader. The papers need to do something to differentiate themselves.

They may use devices such as the graphic cover – a favourite of the New Zealand Herald ­– and make the front a promotion for what is inside. This turns the front page into a magazine cover that will attract the casual buyer (and many are nowadays). I understand the reasoning and many of these front pages are bold and attractive, even if they’re profligate when newspapers are hardly passing the pinch test. They’re not the news, merely tasters.

However, I’m more worried by the substitution of news with what purports to be analysis but which too often is more a writer’s opinion than a critical weighing of facts. 

There is a hierarchy of news and I don’t put analysis at the top of it. I rank opinion even further down the scale.

I’m not worried about stepping into minefield of defining what’s news. It’s a bit like Justice Stewart Potter’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” However, it might help to recall  former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s “map of things we call news”, in his 2018 memoir, Breaking News. I make no apology for quoting at length because what he says is at the nub of the problem with the front page.

There is straight news and adversarial news; subjective news and objective news. There is news as public service and news as entertainment. There is exclusive news and commodity news. There are investigations; there are campaigns and there is advocacy. There is breaking news and there is slow, considered news. There is analysis, or news with context; explanatory news. There is news as activism. There is opinion dressed up as news; there is eyewitness news; first-person news; or scoops of interpretation. There may even be sponsored news or advertising dressed up to look like news.

Within one news organisation virtually all those forms of journalism may exist under one roof. We took it for granted that the reader understood what was going on and that they could differentiate one kind of journalism from another. But now – at the time of journalism’s greatest crisis – the defence of ‘journalism seems infinitely more complicated.

In an age of information chaos and crisis, journalists feel they have to win the argument that there is a category of information – let’s call it ‘proper news’ – which is better than, and distinct from, all the other stuff out there.

Alan Rusbridger

It is no surprise how far ‘opinion’ is down that list. Rusbridger’s guiding light was long-time Guardian publisher C.P. Scott whose 1921 centennial essay on journalism contained the phrase “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. It is equally unsurprising that Rusbridger should make a plea for journalists to champion ‘proper news’. The world is awash with the improper variety.

Newspapers may feel that, in order to beat digital immediacy, they must contextualise the news. Done properly, that form of analysis is of great value to a reader. Context is heaven-sent in a fast-moving world drowning in information (facts), misinformation (erroneous messages)  and disinformation (deliberate falsehood). Too often, though, the ‘analyser’ falls into the trap of mistaking their own opinion for an objective examination of the facts and their implications. 

Commentary disguised as analysis may betray itself by some common traits. It may use emotive words which, in the guise of providing colourful emphasis, reveal an unsupported personal viewpoint. It may pose questions that are not so much rhetorical as intentional misuse of a question mark. Or it may purport to be reflecting a view held by ‘most people’. In the latter case, I amuse myself by imagining the writer being confronted by Margaret Thatcher. The Australian television journalist George Negus made the mistake of remarking during an interview “Some people say you are ruthless and autocratic….”, to which Mrs Thatcher replied: “Who, George? Who said that? Name them, please….”. Um, er.

What we are witnessing is the rising value that is being placed on opinion. We have yet to see Mike Hosking’s byline lead the print edition of the New Zealand Herald  – his opinions do already head his newspaper’s web homepage – but opinion pieces by other staff make the front page. Stuff’s metropolitan papers have a propensity for carrying commentary by political staff on the front page.

The news industry is embarked on a campaign to gain the public’s trust, as a defence against the rise of ‘fake news’ and disinformation. That campaign is best served by the production of ‘proper news’ and its display on the front page. 

News executives will fall back on the argument that digital platforms win every time: comment and analysis are all that print can keep for itself. I do not buy that arguments for a couple of reasons. It is based largely on what Rusbridger calls ‘commodity news’ or the material that everyone can lay hands on. It is produced every day by the vast legions in  the PR Army and quickly massaged by newsroom worker bees. ‘Proper news’ is the work of journalists seeking facts and collating them into a meaningful story. But, say the editors, we must first run them on our website. Show me the stone tablet on which that is written. Certainly, there is no point in holding off on publishing commodity news, but there is no reason an exclusive cannot break simultaneously in print and in a derivative rewrite online. ‘Digital first’ becomes impaired logic when it means you are repeatedly shooting yourself in  the foot.

The irony is that I often open my opinion-led paper to find inside a ‘proper news’ story that could have topped the front page…and which is news to me. My morning experience with the newspaper, and the trust that people place it its publisher, would be enhanced more by uncovering facts that are news to me than by journalists spending that time telling me what they think.

More than half a century ago, when television was black and white and there was one channel, there was a programme called Dragnet. In it, Jack Webb played the lead character Sergeant Joe Friday. I remember only a single phrase from the programme and it’s worth repeating: “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Impressive hire

Konstanin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel have made an impressive start to resurrecting their recently-acquired North & South with the appointment of Rachel Morris as editor. Hastings-born Morris has an impressive career to date in the United States as a co-founder of the Huffington Post’s digital magazine, Highline, and as executive editor of The New Republic. A regular returnee to New Zealand (and former Listener columnist), her challenge now will be to ensure she reads New Zealand’s vital signs. Her predecessors had finely tuned understanding on the country’s current affairs and their interpretation through longform journalism. Everything points to Morris continuing that tradition, enhanced by her North American experience. An interview with her in the Listener three years ago suggests she is going to be a force to be reckoned with: “Given the level of misinformation and distrust that exists right now, the media has to think much harder about how it ­performs its core function, which is making sure people are informed about things that directly affect them. This may involve not thinking only in terms of stories, but also approaching big issues, almost like a blend of journalism and public education.”

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