Making the difference in reporting

Difference engine

Is journalism a matter of pouring out words to fill pages, or something more accomplished? Strangely, for a long time newspapers seem to have valued their least-skilled contributors the highest – reasoning that a Boris Johnson, a Melanie Philips, a Polly Toynbee or a Richard Littlejohn is a sufficient brand on their own that their photobyline is worth more to the paper than the accurate or reasoned reporting you could buy from several no-names for a columnist’s wage. “Every copy editor knows that publications indulge in stars, often columnists and critics but also reporters, who are not required to meet the standards expected of an intern. They don’t get things right, they can’t be edited, and they won’t be bothered”, is John McIntyre’s blunt assessment.

In fact, being aggressively inaccurate can be a key part of a polemicist-columnist’s job. When Don’t Get Mad, Get Accuracy made an abortive attempt to get misleading factual claims in the Daily Mail fixed through the Press Complaints Commission, they found that convention was up against them. From the PCC’s judgement on a fact-free Melanie Philips screed against adoption by gay couples:

While the column had been phrased in stark terms – the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by “the fact is”, for example – the author’s claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact. The columnist was entitled to present her particular views on the issue of gay adoption in robust language. Complaints about the accuracy of the columnist’s claims had to be viewed in this context.

PCC judgement quoted here

In other words: the PCC considers columnists to be a special case, exempted from accuracy by the force of their views. A paper hiring a columnist is employing a personality to drive engagement with the paper, and both positive and negative engagement are equally welcome, because whether the letters and comments are of praise or complaint, they’re still a measurable index of success in drawing readers and traffic. Cristopher Fray’s attack on Antichrist was a critical disaster, but it also drew eyes to the page and reinforced a certain worldview for core readers while attracting the attention of opponents.

Columnists have another advantage in a world of digital distribution, at least in theory: because it’s the form rather than the content that has value, the actual words can be protected by copyright and, in a perfectly law-abiding world, paywalled. (Maybe this was part of the NYT’s logic in the now-defunct TimesSelect programme.) But opinion is easy to generate – as evidenced by Boris Johnson and his knock-out-a-column-on-a-Sunday-morning routine – and there are plenty of blogs able to offer a bit of invective, often with even more traffic-driving extremity because they’re loosed from the bare civilities of print.

High quality, informed reporting is expensive, and unlike venting rhetoric, it’s something that professional news organisations can offer consistently whereas amateurs can only create it intermittently and opportunistically. The product of that sort of reporting is facts, and facts can’t be paywalled – legally or practically. But news organisations could, conceivably, develop a structure where readers are happy to pay for immediate access to breaking news, and for the privilege of supporting the valuable activity of newsgathering. The ability to get angry and type is near-universal; the ability to get stuff right is scarce, and if something’s scarce you should be able to find a way to make it pay.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Ric e Ette, used under Creative Commons.

“I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world”


And yet all that self-exposure couldn’t buy Liz Jones a little self-knowledge. She was on  Today this morning, explaining why the gut-spilling journalism she’s perfected for the Mail is a good thing for readers, writers and newspapers.

Liz Jones on Today 12 March 2009

These are extract’s from Liz’s apology for her mucky furrow of writing:

It seemed to me that a lot of women were going through what I was going through and being a bit dishonest about it.

So, nobly, Liz became the lone speaker of truth for unhappily married middle-class women everywhere.

It helped me to deal with things and to confront things – sometimes I provoked an argument just so I could write about it!

There’s a bit of a difference between “confront” and “provoke”: if you confront something, then it’s an existing state of affairs (ahem); if you provoke something, then you’re causing something to happen. And if Liz was provoking an argument to have something to write about, then it seems likely that these discussions would be focused not so much on reaching a contented marital resolution as on eliciting a blazing selection of insults to use in her column.

Yes, I have [betrayed those around me]. And I know you said at the beginning it’s cheap and easy – it’s not, it’s very difficult writing about people close to you. It absolutely destroys relationships, it destroyed my marriage ultimately. […] Even novelists do it, they’ll just change a name. I do think it’s a more honest way of doing it.

Novelists don’t do that. Well, some of them do (Hanif Kureshi comes up in the Today piece), but when they do it’s just as contemptible as what Jones did with her marriage using real names. A better description of what novelists do came from Stephanie Merritt in the Guardian this weekend. She says that many cognitive behavourial therapy exercises were “variations on the processes I used in writing novels: taking experiences and emotional states, giving them to made-up characters and then examining them from a different perspective.” Which is a much more reflective process than the weekly splurge Jones produces, and doesn’t involve announcing the actual devastation of the domestic life you share with another actual person.

I did [feel sorry for my husband], and he would beg me not to write stuff. […] When you see it in print and all your friends are talking about the fact you haven’t had sex for nine months, it’s jolly embarrassing. But if you’re a writer and you decide to do a column you do it, you don’t hide things. You’re either putting it all out there or you’re not.

Jones also calls writing about her private life a “compulsion”, which is a bit sharper than this effort to dress up the confessional as a vocation. Writing a column doesn’t mean you’ve taken a solemn vow of self-revelation. Dan Savage and Greta Christina both write explicitly about sex, and they’re both absolutely clear that their current sex life is private because their partners don’t want it written about. Jones’ attitude sounds like an excuse from someone who’s so profoundly solipsistic, she simply doesn’t care what she publishes about other people.

Journalism has gone the same way as TV – it’s reality TV, it’s real people’s lives. I really think people want that and it sells and people respond to it in a way they don’t respond to someone who never types the word ‘I’. I’ve probably written the word ‘I’ more than anyone else in the world!

Why does Liz Jones count as a “real person”? The pressures on her marriage (apart from the fact that it involved two people who sound supremely revolting) were extraordinary and self-inflicted ones: most unhappily married women don’t have the added pressure of worrying about what their husband will think when he reads an account of their latest relationship hiccup in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper. If Jones can’t learn anything from writing about her experiences, what possible journalistic value can there be in it for any other readers?