Journalism: literature in hyperdrive

Lauren PelleyJournalism is fast — and getting faster. So what is good, responsible journalism in our modern era? J-student Lauren Pelley reports.

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.”

Lauren PelleyJournalism is fast — and getting faster. So what is good, responsible journalism in our modern era? J-student Lauren Pelley reports.

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.”

So said British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, way back in the 1800s. But never has it been more true than today, in our age of continual radio streams, 24-hour television news cycles and rapid-fire Twitter feeds.

In this generation, “the newspaper-a-day version of journalism has passed into history,” observes journalist Dan Gillmor. “Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff.”

Journalism is fast — and getting faster. So what is good, responsible journalism in our modern era?

I began to muse on this back in November. It was well into the wee hours of the morning that a group of young student journalists — including myself — from The University of Western Ontario’s campus newspaper, The Gazette, were trying to cover a campus strike. Not for a deadline the next day, mind you, but to continually update our followers on social media — individuals who anticipated information arriving in their computers or cell phones as quickly as possible.

There was no army of fact checkers waiting to proof the copy, no editors hovering over our shoulders as we sent out online updates. It was just a bunch of fledgling journalists feeding information in near real time to whet the appetite of an online community. Oh, and trying to be “responsible” while we were at it.

But I remember screwing up that night, probably sometime around 10 or 11 o’clock. I tweeted some old, outdated — and downright incorrect — information to my hundreds of Twitter followers.

By the time I realized my flub and retracted the information, it had already been retweeted several times. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, that means various folks sent a carbon copy of my message out to their legions of followers, allowing my tidbit of erroneous news to be spread exponentially. A journalist’s worst nightmare.

For me, it was a wake-up call. Yet I see the mainstream media make these mistakes all the time.

Just this month, early media coverage of the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona was, to put it bluntly, a mess. Major American news outlets sent out online updates through Twitter and other social media platforms with a speed that was nothing short of impressive. Problem was, the reports were entirely wrong when it came to the condition of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

One minute, she was shot in the head. The next minute, she was declared dead. The next minute, the “Gabrielle Giffords is dead” information had to be retracted because she was alive — albeit in critical condition.

CNN and NPR were just a few of the powerhouse media outlets that had to publish retractions.

At first, seeing professional journalists stumble like that made me feel better about my mishap in November. “Look,” I said to myself, “we all make mistakes.” But I couldn’t shake the idea that something is wrong when, in our modern age of instantaneous communication, being the first to report something trumps being accurate.

If journalism is faster than ever before, then responsible journalism needs to happen in a hurry as well. And it’s about more than getting the facts right.

So that brings me back to my question. What, exactly, is responsible journalism, in a time when your deadline is — now?

Well, let’s see what the experts say. The BBC, for one, has strict guidelines on what it considers “responsible” journalism.

These include “not avoiding important issues and stories because they are difficult or complex” — and producing regular coverage of these to inform the public.

The BBC also says responsible journalism means “dealing with what is significant and important in society in the most serious minded sense of the words” — not just what is trendy or titillating — and “earning its authority and respect through its fairness, objectivity and sound investigative procedures and judgments.”

Now that’s a definition of responsible journalism I can get behind. But it’s one that’s often lost in much modern reporting. How do you tell the whole story in a 140-character tweet? How do you not pander to the most titillating topics when ratings and page views are the basis of your survival as a media outlet?

Mediascape, an information clearinghouse from New Zealand, argues that the definition of responsible journalism, as outlined by the BBC, is now difficult to attain. “News editors with an eye to the bottom line, increasingly emphasize the ability of news stories to hold a viewer's interest in the morning rush or at the end of a hard day’s work,” they argue. As in, it’s about titillation — not information.

In the Huffington Post, Steven G. Brant lamented how most media outlets will briefly cover major issues and problems in society without digging deeper.

Responsible journalism, wrote Brant, is “journalism that admits that reality consists of both problems and solutions … and takes responsibility for telling us about the solutions too, even if it's harder to write about solutions than it is to write about problems.”

So I dare not avoid talking about how to solve this problem, since its one that plagues both green campus journalists and the heavyweights we look to as role models.

Speed may now be the name of the game, but the fairness, accuracy and the dogged pursuit of truth that marks true responsible journalism should still be woven into the fabric of our craft. Therefore, the solution is balancing — or, let’s be honest and call it juggling — the rapid updates now expected in this field alongside the more time-consuming thoroughness necessitated by the pursuit of good journalism.

So, in a practical sense, that means being quick on the trigger with online breaking news, but still taking time to craft a thorough, comprehensive story that covers all the bases.

Gillmor calls it a “slow-news” approach. “As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation,” he says.

The initial Gifford coverage, error-ridden and rumour-filled though it was, filled that need for speed in our modern era. But, thankfully, much of the in-depth coverage emerging from websites and newspapers has unpacked the issues skimmed over on television news reports and social media feeds.

Take the Globe and Mail’s coverage, for instance, in the days following the shooting. It published a piece diving into the mental state of the suspected shooter, a feature on the mystery of brain surgery in light of Giffords’ condition and stories on the reactions of both ordinary citizens and American leaders.

Evidently, in-depth coverage like this isn’t lost on our 24-hour-news-cycle generation. One fascinating Globe article I read, about the story of the shooter’s mental state, has over 800 comments on it. It’s clear: the public wants more than headlines. They want good, old-fashioned responsible journalism.

At Western’s student newspaper, The Gazette, we strived to do the same with our strike coverage. Twitter was crucial in keeping the public updated in real time, but it was no replacement for our analysis in print the next day. The two simply worked in tandem.

Times have changed. If journalism was “literature in a hurry” back in the 1800s, it’s literature on hyper drive in the modern era. But what hasn’t changed is accurate, thorough, responsible journalism. It might look a little different, it might be accompanied by the most frantic news cycle the world has ever seen — but it’s there.

And it’s necessary.

Lauren Pelley is the winner of the Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship. The Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship was established at the University of Western Ontario to promote and enhance social justice, peace and harmony, by encouraging highly responsible journalism.