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News is about depth, not puff or velocity

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Sunday Guardian, July 22, 2012

Unlike the old-style newspapers, there seems to be low interest in truth or customer enlightenment in today’s media.

It’s all about balance. Get it? Well that’s what we might hear a parent saying to their kids at the ice rink, but here I wish to comment on the news media. All of it — from years ago, to now with the instant speed of Twitter, and so on. Is that too much to take in? Well maybe, but there are parallels to be drawn and learned from down the ages.

I remember the B-movies from the United States viewed in my youth where the newspaper editor, surrounded by cigarette fumes, barks instructions at the hero “…go get the news, and if it ain’t there make it up!” The hapless lad exits and we know he has to grapple with his ethics to find the true story that will make his editor happy and the readers too. Over the years, I have been surprised to find the explosive headings created by newspaper sub-editors have little to do with the storyline, but everything to do with readership and maintaining the paper’s cash flow as “no news” translates quickly into “no sales”. But now, instead of walking the streets sweating over investigative journalism, the modern journalist often sits at a desk reviewing a cascade of Twitter streams. Neal Mann (of WSJ) says he keeps ahead by understanding what his well-researched tweeting authors are delivering. Neal has learned to judge who says what “with accuracy”, which, after a little further research, may be forwarded to the news desk, and in some cases may be announced on air within seconds of the first tweets being seen.

While the old-style newspapers used traditional metrics to evaluate their impact (turnover, advertising income) the new bloggers use online analytics (how many people read it? how many times was it forwarded or shared? how many comments?) and there seems to be low interest in truth or customer enlightenment. Bloomberg writers are said to have a “dashboard”, which indicates these metrics and which are used to evaluate the writer’s salary — more impact, more cash — simply because Bloomberg benefits directly. The press now seems to support a strategy of harvesting data and selling it as “information”, just as a “hot” story might move markets and so raise the salary of the staffer at Bloomberg. Although I pick on Bloomberg here I am sure majors in the “wire” industry all do the same: as Neal Mann says “… you’ve got to say ahead of the game”.

Four days ahead of the second Greek elections I whizzed through the English language TV news channels: Russia noted its flat markets (after its two-day national holiday); France noted that oil prices were falling slightly and that Euro ministers would meet at the end of the month; in Spain its Prime Minister attempted to assure Parliament that its recent loan had to be repaid later; while the Italians refuted they would be next-in-line for a bailout; and Bloomberg (again, sorry!) discussed the second month fall in US retail sales and how data affected the Asian, European and — as they would soon open — the US markets. Instant news, but a lack of commentary on its potential evolution and how it might affect “the common man” — no wonder they switch off.

In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry (into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press) continues day by day: it began in July 2011 and is expected to end its data collection in July 2012. The chairman, Lord Justice Leveson said the press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians? It covers the relationships between the press barons, politicians and police; and the inquiry will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.

In fact that inquiry, though British, affects us all because at its heart lies the £30 billion global media enterprise of the Murdoch family (world-wide via satellite and terrestrial TV and films, newspapers and magazines). Their methods over the years have warped from the traditional reporting to embrace all aspects of digital data access in the search for “news”.

I suggest we need now to backtrack a little, to calm down, and to refrain from “sound bites” and instant glimpses of “news”. We know that a wide-angle lens can make a group of people from rent-a-crowd waving banners and shouting nonsense look like a revolution, especially if the intrepid reporter mouths-over a report from the safety of the HQ desk. Words that seem to confirm the conflagration “… here are images but we can’t confirm…” What is really needed is that the international media covering different sectors gather with the players in these sectors to hold open “Chatham House” meetings to elicit truthful news, which may then be commented upon at length without innuendo and with conclusions that are overdrawn due to the brevity of the news flash. It is about balance, not about the velocity of Twitter, it’s about depth, not about a puff. We, as concerned global citizens, deserve better from our media.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global business community.