There’s more to reporting than quoting from media releases or explaining statistics you’ve downloaded from the ABS — or at least there ought to be. And that’s why it’s so worrying to read this from Alan Kohler:
It is now possible for anyone to find out almost anything. Someone sitting at home can now read any press release, watch any press conference, or read its transcript, and examine any document anywhere in the world.
The lowest paid jobs in society are those that anyone can do, but can’t be bothered or don’t have the time, like cleaning or driving. The danger for plain reporting is that it will be increasingly seen in that light – as a service that anyone can do but can’t be bothered or haven’t the time.
If reporting was all about sitting in your pajamas pulling quotes from media releases then it really would be something anyone could do. But I’d always assumed that reporters did more than gather media releases from their inboxes and pigeon holes and google authoritative web sites.
Kohler argues journalism must go beyond reporting and explain what events mean. But in his recent post on the future of journalism, Ken Parish points out that "explaining what events mean is exactly what good bloggers do". What news-oriented bloggers usually don’t do, is get out from behind their laptops and confront the subjects of their posts first hand.
Reporters are meant to go out into the world, find new stories, dig up background information and confirm claims. They’re supposed to find people who know, ask questions and badger sources until they get satisfactory answers. As Gatewatching’s Jason Wilson says, journalists use telephones. And you’d hope, at least occasionally, they’d leave the office and go see for themselves.
Here’s just one example. For years journalists in Australia and the UK have interviewed partisan policy experts like Lawrence Mead on the triumphs of American welfare reform. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation were happy to provide journalists with authoritative looking accounts of reform in places like Wisconsin. But if you wanted to know what welfare reform looked like on the ground you needed a good reporter.
The New York Times’ Jason DeParle spent years researching welfare reform. After reading his his vivid accounts of how case workers and welfare recipients are coping with reform, you understand the statistics and expert reports in an entirely new way. And even if you wonder how far you can trust a journalist to report such a contentious issue fairly, you’ll at least understand what you need to know but don’t.
Politicians and think tank experts talk about introducing tough work requirements and the reductions in caseloads that result. All of this is picked up by journalists, leaving readers to make their own vague assumptions about what it means for the human beings down at the welfare office. But what DeParle does is take you there. Here’s Wisconsin’s much hyped welfare reform from the perspective of a case worker named Mike:
His first battles weren’t with clients but with the computer system that tracked them, a befuddling Wisconsin institution called CARES. The central nervous system of W-2 (most states have an equivalent), CARES had more than 500 screens, each known by an opaque four-letter code. Need to change someone’s work assignment? Go to WPAS. Issue her check? Type "Y" in AGEC, but change the date in SFED, otherwise the check may not go out, even when AGEC said it did. For all the talk of making Feps bold problem solvers, fluency in CARES was particularly prized since it was the sole repository of the data that would govern contract renewal. It didn’t matter when Michael used his lunch hour to drive clients to job interviews; there was no CARES screen for that. (He pictured one: "SCKR," for "sucker.") What mattered was whether he had correctly coded their employability plans.
Facing a parade of addled clients, Michael found himself thinking more about keystrokes than the substance of what they said. His befuddlement reached its dark apogee with the arrival of a large, sobbing woman free-associating about her troubles. Michael dutifully posed the questions on his screen.
Sobbing Woman: I got into it with my sister’s boyfriend….
Michael: What are your employment goals?
Woman: … he hit me in the head with a two-by-four…
Michael: Foreign languages? Written or verbal?
Woman: … we’re out of food …
Michael: Volunteer work or hobbies?
Do you really want read news reports based on data from CARES?
I have no idea whether newspapers can make money out of the kind of reporting DeParle does. But without it, why should I bother buying newspapers and magazines? As Kohler says, I can download media release for myself.