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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Rascally Russell Brown

June 12, 2008

has announced he’s quit at The Listener, leaving only a couple of names on board who have any hope of stopping the rot.

I’ll miss Russell’s writing. I can’t quite understand why it leads in to the TV section of the paper but there you go. It was one of the first places I ever read about “the internet” and Russell’s troubles getting his original Ihug connection set up (by the Wood brothers themselves, no less) was one of those pivotal moments that sparked my interest in IT as a news round.

When I arrived at Computerworld some years later, Russell was the online editor (of what was quaintly called @IDG). When he left, I got the online reporter’s job (and Kirstin got the online editor’s role – the much harder and less rewarding post because she had to manage me. Sorry, Kirstin) and Russell told me if ever I needed to jack up the ratings, write about either Linux, Apple, online security threats or Ihug. He was right and I could do that and just about guarantee the traffic surge that would follow.

I’ve been mistaken for Russell several times. In fact, one fellow thought that I was a pseudonym for Russell and used to regularly accost me as such in public. I toyed with the idea of getting “The poor man’s Russell Brown” on a t-shirt to wear on the TV but Russell suggested he might be upset if that happened so I didn’t. Well, not yet I didn’t.

In fact, I only ever got to BE on TV because Russell refused to do mornings. A wise move, especially now Breakfast Business kicks off at 6am, requiring you to be in the studio waiting to go at some ungodly hour.

Of course, Russell has a new home now (and an older one) and seems to be doing quite nicely. But I will miss his Listener column and it’s just another reason why I don’t read that rag any more.

I’ve complained before about The Listener, and about its coverage of science in general.

I should point out here that The Listener just won the Qantas Media Award for newsstand magazine of the year, so my views are somewhat in the minority (although readership is in freefall (although curiously missing from the ABC figures) so maybe not a complete minority).

The Listener’s approach to science and to rigour has been somewhat lacking, in my opinion. Imagine my surprise when I read on page 45 of this week’s issue that The Listener, in conjunction with the Royal Society of NZ, is sponsoring the Manhire Prize for creative science writing.

Either, The Listener takes its science journalism seriously, despite all evidence to the contrary. Or they’re taking the more liberal interpretation of “creative” (as in “He was an accountant who believed in ‘creative accounting’.”) or perhaps they’re just having a joke. All I can say is I’m glad the RSNZ has appointed the International Institute of Modern Letters to judge the award.

Amusingly, the topic of this year’s award is “evolution”.

Let the games begin.

I don’t know Gordon himself but his work on various publications has always been thoughtful and interesting. He’s an ex-Listener staffer so I wondered if he’d weigh in on the whole “let’s sue the opposition” debate and he has. Hattip: Mysterious Dave.

“In my experience, we at the Listener tended to have a healthy skepticism towards everyone – including Labour when in power in the 80s ( the Listener invented the term ‘Rogernomics’ and it wasn’t meant as flattery) National in the 90s, and Labour again early this decade. Consistently, the Listener bit the hand of power, and would then explain in 2,500 reasoned words why it felt the need to do so.”

Dead right. That’s why I read The Listener – and that’s exactly why I don’t today.

The whole column is worth a read but the real proof is in the numbers. Gordon again:

Circulation figures could eventually decide whether the Listener goes the same way. Finlay Macdonald recalls that circulation fell from the high or mid 80s to around 74,000 over the five years of his tenure. Stirling once characterized this performance to me as the magazine being in‘ free fall’ when she took it over.

Well, break out the parachutes. The last audited survey has the Listener net circulation at 65,559. In all likelihood, some 40-42,000 of that weekly figure comes from prepaid subscriptions. This would suggest the Listener is managing to sell only about 23-25,000 copies over the counter nationwide, in most weeks. Pretty slim pickings if the master plan was for a new mass readership to materialize from the ruins, as compensation for the trashing of the old Listener template.

It’s always a tricky business, achieving balance in news reporting.

Sure, some stories are easy – it’s a fire, at a warehouse, so you write about that. Not much balance needed really, just some good pictures and a quote or two.

Most news, however, needs balance. Each reporter brings his or her own bias, each editor has a point of view. For many years I wrote – and indeed crusaded – on the topic of broadband. I decided early on that not only was the topic important to my readers but that I needed to take an editorial stance in favour of one side of the many broadband debates. That is, I sided with unbundling instead of against it. That was an editorial decision and I stuck to it but constantly reviewed the value of that decision. Eventually the mainstream reporting came round to my point of view (even my editor, who once famously asked me “what’s the point of broadband?” and was unconvinced by my argument and who has since gone on to win awards writing about the urgent need for … broadband. But I digress. And gloat) and now everyone writes about broadband without a second thought.

If there’s one journalist I’ve always envied it’s Kim Griggs. She writes about science. She writes about New Zealand. She writes about science in New Zealand and she does it for Wired magazine and the BBC and The Guardian and any number of proper publications. I’d hate her but she writes so very well. I’d hate her for that as well, but what can you do…?

She is pro science. It’s hard not to be, and of course it’s her round so you’d expect her to have a bias towards science.

She also used to write for The Listener and, following the debacle over The Listener’s censorship of another journalist’s blog on the matter (go on, send me a letter as well, I dare you) Kim posted about it to Russell Brown’s Hard News on the matter. I’ll recreate it here – Russell, Kim, let me know if that’s not OK with you and I’ll paraphrase instead.

I was part of a group of four writers who wrote a science column for The Listener for a couple of years. Our idea, promoted to Pamela in the first instance by Marilyn Head, was to provide stories about the abundance of interesting science that is being done in New Zealand. Our hope was that the stories would show the array of different aspects of New Zealand’s science community – there are some great stories out there – but also build up an appreciation of science so that there is an understanding, and critical thought about what science can and can’t do. So that when we debate climate change or nanotechnology or GE or xenotransplantation or the Large Hadron Collider, there can be more light and less heat in our discussions.

We eventually quit – spat the dummy truth to be told – when we were told our stories had an endorsing (of science) tone. This, from a magazine that had run a story about laughter yoga (well written though it was) under the science and health banner.

Seriously – their stories had a tone that implied they were endorsing science.

I really don’t know what to say to that. I’d encourage Pamela the editor to post about it here if it’s not accurate, but my fear is that this is exactly the kind of thing Pamela and the editorial masters at The Listener would say.

It goes beyond dumbing down and becomes something much worse – the promoting of ignorance. Can we really stand by and watch that happen?

What he said

April 21, 2008

Keith Ng has launched in on the debacle that is The Listener’s approach to handling the media and done so with far more aplomb than I’ve managed so I’ll link to it here.

Favourite quote:

Clearly, there’s some very sophisticated irony at work here. A climate change publication is accusing a media organisation of shutting down a voice on climate change. The media organisation then gently convinces said climate change publication to STFU, and to announce (in the manner of those convicted by Soviet show-trials) that the media organisation is in no way shutting down voices on climate change.

Brilliantly put, Keith.

And Stephen Price (journalist-lawyer, a new hybrid I was previously unaware of who presumably can say mean things in print and then defend himself in court, thus earning more than the 40c/word freelance rate, OH the irony! ;-)) points to the legal side of things and the D Word: defamation.

“The correction and apology looks ham-fisted to me. It even includes a retraction of things that weren’t even in the post.”

Rather than debate the merits of the case or argue with the bloggers about what was said and why and by whom and when, The Listener has gone medieval and called in the lawyers.

The good news is I would hope this is the lowest point The Listener can reach, so it’s all better from here. The bad news is, I fear the depths of nonsense to which this editor and her publishers may stoop.

Why is it so bad? Because newspapers and magazines live in fear of the lawyer’s letter. Every reporter I know worth their salt has been threatened by some lawyer or other. I’ve had a couple in my time (the last one, laughably, ended up with us all going out to dinner to discuss our differences, because they couldn’t afford lawyers. Not sure which is worse really).

Typically the lawyers are called out in a cowardly attempt to get a reporter to back down. A good editor and a decent publisher will bear the brunt of it, and I’m delighted to say in my last journalistic role I was blessed with editors and publishers alike who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a reporter when such a need arose.

For a reporter it’s a terrible situation to be caught in. Meetings are held, often without your input. Older staff mutter about getting your own lawyer (all this for a story that you may have received as much 40 cents per word if you’re a freelancer) and the knot in your stomach grows and grows.

For a media house to use that kind of stand-over tactic against another publication is just unacceptable. We don’t need to stoop to the level of the lawyer to settle our differences… That’s what editorials are for. Use the tools of the trade to defend your position, to explain, to communicate. If you can’t do that, you’re not an editor I would bother reading, let alone writing for.