TVNZ sends timely reminder on vital news processes

TVNZ’s updated rethink on how it handles stories – a consequence of Radio New Zealand’s controversy over altered foreign news content – is a timely reminder that good journalism relies not only on trust but on checks and balances.

Every functional newsroom relies on trust: It is both top-down and bottom-up. An editor (or whatever newspeak title you wish to create for the person responsible for the overall editorial output) must trust the heads of each part of the editorial structure and, through them, the cascade of staff down to the most junior. Everyone from that junior up must trust the decision-making and stewardship of those above them.

Very occasionally, that trust is broken by someone who – through malfeasance, poor judgement, or human frailty – goes rogue.

That happened at RNZ in June when inappropriate editing of foreign wire stories was discovered. It led to an independent enquiry and a raft of recommendations for change within the public broadcaster. The RNZ enquiry’s report can be found here

No such breakdown of trust occurred at TVNZ. When the RNZ scandal broke, then chief executive Simon Power ordered a review of his own organisation’s handling of news stories. General Counsel (now interim chief executive) Brent McAnulty found no similar breaches of editorial policy but nonetheless made 11 recommendations to improve processes.

McAnulty’s report preceded the release of RNZ’s independent enquiry and TVNZ has now revisited its findings in light of recommendations in that enquiry. The result is a further series of recommendations by current TVNZ senior counsel Michele Lee that have implications for editorial news handling processes. You can find the updated report here

The update recommends refresher training on upward referral and on disinformation, reviewing software and systems, and re-assessing resourcing levels in the newsroom.

Producing the news is a little like car assembly. The process brings together component parts into a vehicle that is then driven away. The assembly line is a critical path and the absence of one component can bring the process to a temporary halt. At various points in the process there are checks to ensure that the right parts have been correctly assembled and there is a final safety check before it leaves the plant.

There is, however, one critical difference. While car-making is a linear process that moves forward along the assembly line, news production is a complex process moving backward and forward – perhaps multiple times – before it results in a broadcast bulletin or newspaper.

The omission of digital platforms in that analysis is deliberate. These platforms have the capacity to bypass process and allow reporters to publish directly to website or app with tweet-like dispatches that pay homage to immediacy and imbue it with almost religious powers. Checks in such cases may be after initial publication…if they are made.

The endpoint of digital news dissemination may be what Australian creative industries academic Axel Bruns calls ‘produsage’. Under his model citizen journalists and news bloggers publish a first draft that is augmented and corrected by others in a continuing process that treats news as an unfinished artifact.

‘Produsage’ has a role to play in the democratisation of information, but it is the antithesis of traditional professional news production that is based on truth-seeking and verification before publication. Professional newsrooms put in place critical path processes and checks that seek to give form to those principles.

To an outsider the processes are arcane, the product of minds that would be at home in the imperial administrative system of Byzantium. That is because they are not linear but multi-linear. And the flow is two-way.

The photograph next to the logo above shows the news production section of my old paper the New Zealand Herald in the 1960s. It was essentially the same when I arrived a few years later. Over time the configurations changed, pens and paper were replaced by terminals, but the functions remained.

While I was at the paper, a group of consultants were employed to give their considered view on the enterprise. They asked me to provide an editorial production flow diagram. When I did so, they looked at it and said: “That can’t possibly work.” Given that I had harboured doubts about the level of said consultants’ knowledge of journalism and editorial organisation, I was annoyed. I told them they could come back that night and – diagram in hand – watch the process in action. They did so and, somewhat shame-faced, the following day admitted that the newspaper had, indeed, been produced according to plan.

What the consultants found difficult to comprehend were the routine checks, cross-checks, re-checks, referrals, discussions, and changes that a story may go through on its journey from reporter to audience.

They have been a routine part of professional journalism for decades, even centuries. Some trace sub-editing to the moment Gutenberg started setting movable type. Certainly, editing and sub-editing as we know it today were in place in the Victorian era.

Some of the checking processes have been technologically driven: the reading room in a newspaper, where type-set stories were compared with an edited original, were a result of the mechanical typesetting process.

The move to direct editorial production spelt the end of reading rooms but the scheduled production of news bulletins and newspaper editions meant there was time for the byzantine processes of checks and referrals to be carried out.

The digital-first mantra has placed pressure on those processes, but it is vital to the future of trusted, professional journalism that they are not lost in a rush to publish.

In the original version of the TVNZ review Brent McAnulty noted: “The immediacy of news, particularly in a digital or breaking news environment, means there cannot be the multiple layers of oversight that our factual programmes made and commissioned outside NCA sometimes enjoy.” That is certainly the case but both he and the author of the additional recommendations leave no doubt that systems of checks and reviews remain vital.

And the process must begin with reporters themselves. They must practice the journalism of verification to ensure that not only are they reporting facts, but they are also avoiding falling victim to increasingly sophisticated forms of disinformation.

The responsibility does not fall on the reporter alone. Those involved in the remainder of the news production process have two duties beyond enhancing the language and visual production values of a story. They must serve as a check on the fairness and accuracy of a story, and they must test and reinforce the editorial judgement of those who have already created or handled the material. If in doubt, they must refer to higher authority without hesitation.

The ability to publish instantly on a digital platform does not displace or supplant any of those imperatives.

Normal newsroom practice does include at least one check of local stories before publication but that may be set aside in major breaking stories or live crosses. In those circumstances, training and savvy line producers must be the backstop to prevent a reporter misusing their position or being misused by their interview subject.

The same cannot be said of foreign news, at least until the RNZ controversy arose.

Here I readily make an admission, although it may bring little comfort to RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson who did not escape criticism in the independent review. When I was an editor I, too, regarded foreign news as an area I could safely leave to the foreign editor – with no need to check or second guess decisions or content.

My attitude was conditioned by the trust that I – and everyone else – placed in the wire service copy we were receiving from a range of reputable agencies. The content had already been handled by experts before it reached our shores, and we were encouraged to regard agencies like Reuters as Gold Standard.

In his history of Reuters titled The Power of News historian Donald Read quoted from the agency’s 1988 international style guide which asked the question ‘what is news?’ and answered its own question by saying the fact that it was being reported by the agency made it news: “we give it the Reuters hallmark and it rises above the status of a mere report to that of news.” And the hallmark meant we trusted what was transmitted.

The RNZ episode was a timely reminder to take nothing for granted. Certainly, media organisations should not be so dazzled by digital first that they do not see processes which seem arcane to an outsider are a vital component of media trustworthiness.

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