Saturday, 7 February 2009

"No one tells a story like a journalist"

I was lucky enough to spend a day with the Journalism Leaders Programme members last week. As ever, it was like having a brain-valet and I came away with a lot to think about.

As part of the day I got to attend the University's Harris Lecture, which was an insight into the digital transformation of the Daily Telegraph by Mark Skipworth, executive editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
He spoke with enthusiasm, fielding some searching questions from Journalism students along the way.

And then he said something so unexpected, you could almost see people asking themselves if they'd heard right. The phrase that stopped us in our tracks was this:

"No one tells a story like a journalist."

Ouch, that's a poorly-expressed phrase, I thought. Except it wasn't - it was what he absolutely believed... with his next breath he went on to dismiss the ability of bloggers to provide quality, impartial reportage.
I think it proceeded along in this vein but the muttering around me had actually become more interesting than the fuddled point the speaker was labouring towards. (Which was, I think, that journalists are impartial and quest for the truth.)

Now, as a journalist I do indeed strive to be impartial; I have even been known to quest for the truth. I also know, however, that it's incredibly easy pick an angle, inject my own views and editorialise the words as they are written.
Once a reporter has written their impartial story, it passes through several other pairs of hands, who might each add their own views, without necessarily even knowing they are doing it.
Story construction, where it is placed in the paper or on the homepage, the occasional adjective, headlines - even how accompanying images are laid out can shade meaning and influence a reader.

Now consider a story told by Terence Edent, a Vodaphone employee, who last summer filmed himself as a train passenger being stopped and searched by police at under the Terrorism Act. No one, I'd suggest, could tell this story like Terence Edent. It is perfect - right down to the police comment (although you can tell they'd much rather he rang their press office.) A journalist could add to this but why? What would they be adding? Some back-story perhaps.

The truth is that everyone has a story that they tell best, it usually begins "Guess what happened to me...". Some people have a skill of telling others' stories (often using a mobile, loudly, in the train's Quiet car), and some people are lucky enough to get a job that pays them to tell others' stories.

If you believe only a journalist can tell the story then you're closing your eyes, ears and mind to the millions of people out there who are telling their own stories their own ways - from blogging to microblogging, Flickr to YouTube, Bambuser to Blip.FM.
If as journalists we are open minded enough to listen, then we can sometimes find and re-tell these stories to our readers. Remember Stephen Fry's 'stuck lift' story? I followed it on Twitter using hashtags but it was repackaged and retold in the tabloids two days later.

If we aren't open-minded, then we may find ourselves headed down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. I am not a dinosaur; I don't intend to drown in the newsprint tar pits. I'm going to try to keep listening out for other people telling their stories instead.

* If you want a summary of the Digital Editors Network session I'd recommend Sarah Hartley's post here and there's an unedited recording of the Journalism Leaders Forum to be found via here.
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