The danger with journalism today is that it can tend towards the easy win.

Forget asking pesky questions, just show leaping flames on the front page or interview a soot-smeared survivor and ask them how they feel.

How, who, what, where and when are the tenets of this kind of journalism. It’s a necessity in and of itself but I feel it misses the point.

I know why journalism tends towards this kind of easy story – it’s because the newsrooms have been plundered of all but the most junior reporters and an editor (and in some cases even the editor has been made redundant and decisions are made by Others) with nobody in-between. That puts a huge amount of pressure on both ends of the newsroom and leads to the worst kind of newsroom at all: one where reporters are too busy to ask the difficult questions.

Proper journalism, real journalism, my journalism, is about the most important question.

Here’s my One Golden Rule for New Journalists: if you’re ever stuck for something to ask, ask why. Why did the building catch fire? Why were you there? Why weren’t you there? Why did the fire take hold so quickly? Why did the insurance company not pay out? Why why why.

‘Why’ goes to motive. ‘Why’ is the question nobody wants answered; everything else is biography. What happened, when, where did it happen, how. Really these are questions that nobody cares about. ‘Why’ is the question that gets under the skin of any given situation.

And so I must turn my attention to The Listener once more.

Regular readers (hi Mom) will know that I have long since ditched my subscription to what was once New Zealand’s premiere source of investigative journalism. Instead it’s descended into some kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Kafka hell where good stories are lured to their doom. They’re not spiked (a spiked good story lives on) but instead are treated so poorly they because a warped Bizarro World version of what could have been.

This week my wife bought a copy.

The cover story is a revisting of what must surely be one of New Zealand journalism’s finest hours: the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s piece in Metro magazine from June, 1987. I’d link to the Metro article but in a strange twist of fate, Metro has decided the internet is not for it and has closed its website (Metro is also one of the publications which decided editors are surplus to requirements, although I believe that’s changed lately. But I digress).

You can read the detail for yourself, but as I understand it the story addresses the work of one Dr Herb Green who worked in cystology for the Auckland region from the mid 1950s until 1982 when he retired. He developed a theory that the precursor to cervical cancer, carcinoma in situ (CIS), wasn’t a precursor at all and did not require aggressive treatment. In effect he experimented on his patients by treating them in a way not consistent with his colleagues around the world. In that day and age, patient consent processes were not terribly well evolved and many of his patients had no idea they were being treated as control subjects, and that their cancer was being allowed to spread to prove one doctor’s theory.

Without the work of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, the issue would probably (I suggest) have been handled in-house by the hospital itself with very little external attention. Once they’d written their story, however, a court of inquiry was established and the truth came out. Judge Cartwright determined that the dangers of such conservative treatment should have been obvious as early as 1967. The inquiry lead to a review of medical ethics and to the establishment of the Health and Disabilities Commissioner’s role along with the enshrining of patient consent as part of New Zealand’s law.

This is journalism at its finest, shining a light in the darkest corner, revealing a truth that should not be kept secret, making sure that someone is held accountable and that a wrong is put right.

Twenty years on I would hope that the “Unfortunate Experiment” story is being used as a teaching aid in classrooms around the country and that would-be journalists will use it as an example of what to do in much the same way US journalism students have looked to the story of Watergate for their inspiration.

Instead, I discover that The Listener has devoted its entire cover story to a re-hash of the story and come to the conclusion that there never was any “experiment” and that there was no mis-management of cancer treatment. Oh, and someone’s published a new book about it.

This is the second time in the past month or so I’ve seen a The Listener cover story that’s nothing more than a book review beaten up into journalism. The previous cover was for Nigel Latta’s new book about parenting set to coincide with his TV show about parenting. Oh and the article in question was written by Nigel himself, something that I find quite astonishing.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with The Listener having another look at a story. I think that’s a valid and reasonable approach and one I whole-heartedly support.

What I find astounding is the lurid front cover “Cancer scandal – The truth about the unfortunate experiment. Exclusive – How Sandra Coney, Phillida Bunkle and the Cartwright Inquiry into a doctor’s methods got it WRONG”, and the approach taken by the feature inside (Headline: “Finally, the truth”) which is simply to damn the original story and its participants with little or no new input from the other side. No attempt has been made to interview anyone other than Professor Linda Bryder, author of the new book. We learn what the author thinks of the journalists involved and what the author thinks of the Cartwright Inquiry but at no point do we get any serious attempt to look at what anyone else today thinks of the whole affair.

For that, we turn to Chris Barton in the New Zealand Herald with a five page story that can only be termed a rebuttal.

Chris’s piece, An Unfortunate Rebuttal, interviews the author (albeit only by email), one of the patients, the medical advisor to the Cartwright Inquiry and an expert in medical ethics.

He explores what is clearly a difficult issue (both from an emotional point of view and because of the number of years that have passed since so much of this took place) and manages to piece together a compelling story of a doctor who was all too human working in a system that was all too rigid during a time of change.

This is what The Listener should have done. It’s an actual piece of journalism rather than a book review masquerading as such. It asks awkward questions, it has a balance, it has humanity and compassion and at the end I know more than I did when I went in.

Once again The Listener has let down its readers. I see it’s advertising for a deputy editor. That can’t be all the magazine needs.

EDIT: Oh, oh! Forgot the disclaimer (the dangers of self publishing): I’ve known Chris in a professional capacity for longer than either of us care to remember – probably about ten years by now. Of course, when I knew him he was nothing but a tech reporter. These days he’s quite a bit more than that.

EDIT II: Doctor Who has left the building so I’ve swapped ‘tenant’ for ‘tenet’. Hat tip/grammar check: @nzlemming

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And for those of us born in the Old Country, V was never a drink, it was that awful TV series about alien invaders.

It wasn’t that bad I suppose… Great premise, just so very earnest and well, American.

Now they’re remaking it.

If you’ve ever wondered why journalists aren’t paid enough, this clip shows off the power balance of modern PR versus Media quite nicely I think. The expectation is that you’ll write/produce fluff and that that’s what the readers/watchers want. It’s not, which is why laying off journalists and reducing the already pitiful amount freelancers are paid is not going to work as a cost-saving measure.

Bonus points if you can tell me who that is and why they’ll never take the skies from me.

Such superlatives are not often handed out here in Audentworld… but this fine photo caption really needs to be shared with the world.

Trousers and how to wear them.

That’s right, apparently “one leg at a time” and “zip in front” isn’t enough. No, we need an entire article, pointed to from the front page of Stuff to get the message across.

EDIT: I see they’ve updated the headline on the story itself to the much less irritating “Trouser styles and how to wear them” (sarcasm) but the pointer from Stuff remains.

And that’s just pants.

but an awful time to be in journalism.

And by journalism I mean newspapers.

And this piece by Clay Shirkey, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable explains it far better than I could have.

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

Anyone interested in the death of the media should have a read… it’s well worth while.

Journalism

February 10, 2009

Journalism should inform. It should evoke an understanding, preferably at a deep and emotional level, that the reader didn’t have before. It should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted (yes, I’m quoting, no I’m not googling).

The Australian, along with most of the world’s media it seems, has been covering the Australian bush fires in all manner of depth and lurid detail but none of it strikes a chord as much as this report which, despite its awful headline “How we cheated flames of death” is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen this year.

“They warn you it comes fast. But the word ‘fast’ doesn’t come anywhere near describing it.

It comes at you like a runaway train. One minute you are preparing. The next you are fighting for your home. Then you are fighting for your life.

But it is not minutes that come between. It’s more like seconds. The firestorm moves faster than you can think, let alone react.”

Hattip: Richard York

Martin Hirst, journalism lecturer at AUT, is on sabbatical in the UK. Or he will be if they let him fly through the US.

Hope he makes it back. I owe him a coffee.

This is not the first time I’ve heard of a journalist getting into trouble with the US immigration process. One colleague from Australia (Natalie Apostolou) got caught up when the US tightened up its laws around the Visa Waiver Programme after September 11.

She flew in to the US for a conference and did like we all did, checked the box marked YES I can enter the US on the programme. Unfortunately journalists are not allowed in to the US without a special I AM A JOURNALIST SHOOT ME ON SIGHT visa. After being held in a concrete bunker for many hours, handcuffed to an armed guard, she was forced to buy a return ticket to Australia (the vendor in charge of the trip paid, which is good because it had to be Qantas business class) and put on the next flight out.

Worse than that, she was informed she would not be flying IN business class but would be handcuffed to the back of the plane for the flight home. “Ma’am, you are being deported from the US of A. You will be handcuffed at the rear of the plane for the duration of the flight.”

She took umbrage at this, as you can well imagine, and kicked up such a stink the armed guard was pulling away from her. They allowed that perhaps yes, as she was simply being sent home on a technicality she perhaps would be allowed to sit in the seat that was purchased for her. She was, however, lead onto the plane after everyone else had boarded, still in her handcuffs.

After the plane reached cruising altitude the pilot came out, sat with her for a bit, told her not to worry she wasn’t the first he’d seen sent home and he told the chief steward to pull out the good Scotch and to keep her plied for the rest of the flight, which he did.

So good luck Ethical Martini – hope to see you back in NZ one day. Just remember: fly home through the friendly airspace – Iran, Southern Russia, Vietnam, Australia… it’s the only way.

The Listener: RIP

April 18, 2008

I’ve written about the decline in standards at The Listener, New Zealand’s only weekly news and current affairs magazine, on other occassions.

I’ve always enjoyed reading The Listener. It was a calm voice of reason in an increasingly nutso world of extreme views. Whenever a topic was handled, it seemed to be treated with a great deal of thought and reasoning and a lot of analysis over commentary pieces.

For those of you who aren’t journalists, let me explain the difference. It’s subtle, so feel free to read it slowly.

Analysis consists of gathering the facts, typically over a long period of time, and sticking strictly to what is proven and what is provable. Good examples of this are the Metro stories on The Unfortunate Experiment and the like. They take the heat out of the story which in turn makes it a much better read.

Comment pieces (and I say this as a former columnist) are written by chimps who are forced to have a view on things they neither know nor care about. It’s the 60 Minutes/20:20 of the print world. Typically it’s all emotion, heat and noise and ultimately empty.

As an aside, I’ve just read my first Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American, which was really very nicely done and astonishing when you realise he’s writing about the lead up to the Viet Nam war in real time.

His description of opinion writers as being hollow is bang on. I’ll add it to this post later when I find it.

The Listener has, I’m afraid, dumped analysis in favour of opinion and the steady decline in standards has just got straight off the cliff edge.

John Drinnan has a nice round up of the issue here in stablemate The NZ Herald:

The Listener has dumped its “Ecologic” columnist as the magazine acts on a complaint by Bryan Leyland – a prominent sceptic of the human impact of global warming.

Global warming activists and left-wing bloggers have leapt on the magazine which has actively covered the debate, suggesting that it is bowing to pressure.

But Listener editor Pamela Stirling is insisting that the two events are unconnected and that she is losing a staffer because of budget cuts.

Russell Brown (presumably one of those “left-wing bloggers” and not coincidentally a columnist at The Listener (but of the good sort, right Russell?) has a fairly alarmed and damning post in his blog, Hard News, but the real meat of it can be found here on Hot Topic.

I had hoped that the arrival of David Fisher as chief news hound and Proper Reporter would help, but I fear David is a single voice fighting the good fight. I wonder how long it will be before Russell packs his bags and flees and whether the best TV reviewer in the land, Diana Wichtel, will stay.

I, however, will not.

An editor’s job is simple: to deliver the best in journalism. That’s it, really. The how of the matter is tricky (subbing, photos, layout, staff levels, remuneration, profit taking, balance) but at the end of the day newspapers and magazines are in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers and you attract eyeballs with a juicy, tasty publication full of whatever it is the eyeballs are after. Mine have better things to do with their time.