Why reporting matters

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.

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11 Responses to Why reporting matters

  1. Ken Parish says:

    Yes I agree. And that’s why my post was proposing “pro-am” teams that could re-invigorate the art of real investigative journalism (not that it ever had a golden age in my recollection anyway) by making it both more powerful and more affordable.

    That’s also why I disagree with Nicholas’s comment on my post, which strikes me as much too sanguine about the demise of newspapers and by extension professional journalism. Admittedly they mostly don’t do all that great a job but they play a crucial role in a democratic polity which could not readily be duplicated by blogs or any other combination of amateur social media and niche subscription publications.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Don,

    Reporters almost never report the kind of story you’re reporting.

    Where did I first read it?

    On a blog.

    QED.

  3. If you have ever been on the end of press releases then looked at what is in the newspapers all you can do is hold your head in your hands and weep.

    Much of what is in the papers is barely altered press releases.

    Even the stuff that isn’t based on press releases doesn’t involve more than a few phone calls with predicable quotes – Local person fxh said: “The welfare doesn’t seem to care”

    There is no consistency at all – one day the paper will have a tabloid-ish very suss sob story ” Embattled mother of four pleads don’t take my kids” with a accompanying bash at welfare authorities plucking kids from caring hardworking loving mums.

    Next day its ” Why our welfare system fails to protect kids” with accompanying story about welfare leaving kids with mum who leaves kids for days on end, has a conga line of “boyfriends” and shoots what little cash she has up her arm or into pokies.

    No examination of the fact that this is probably exactly the same mum.

    No examination of how she is both responsible and a victim. No examination of the “dads” involved and their parasitic and violent exploitative behavior.

    I could go on…

  4. John Quiggin says:

    I had a go at this topic here, making many of the same points.

    As regards on the ground reality, done well this can be superb, as in your example. But as an obligatory feature of news stories about social and economic developments in the US, I find it pretty annoying. You can’t read a report saying that the unemployment rate is rising without a few paras about Jane Smith, a database designer in Milwaukee who lost her job and can’t find another.

  5. Mr Denmore says:

    This is happening partly because the public relations industry has become increasingly sophisticated at the same time as the media has been denuded of its most experienced journalists and starved of resources. Actually, those experienced former journalists are usually the same ones writing the PR releases.

    Newsrooms now are like factories, pumping out prefabricated components in which most of the work has been done by someone trying to sell something – whether that something is a book, a financial product, a sports drink or a politician.

    The future, I agree, is in collaboration between expert bloggers and traditional newsgatherers. I wrote about this on the Failed Estate a couple of months ago, including a link to a great report from International Press Institute of a possible future in data journalism.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, good point about Possum Mr D.

    Possum has had more ‘scoops’ than most journalists have in a lifetime. And by ‘scoops’, I mean analysis that completely lifts the lid on a contentious story through old fashioned techniques like, err, uncovering facts and evidence and numbers that wreck a pre-ordained media narrative. Possum’s modus operandi is deconstructing self-serving spin or, more usually, ripping to shreds the lazy journalism behind half-baked ‘analysis’ of stories based on numbers. Think of his expose of the media’s complete misrepresentation of the inquiry into the BER program or his detailed analysis showing how much of a wilful beat-up was the “pink batts” scandal.

  7. Mel says:

    Possum belongs in the blogging Hall of Fame.

  8. Ken Parish says:

    The problem with citing Possum as evidence for the capacity of the blogosphere to undertake investigative journalism is that he’s pretty much the only blogger who does this to any significant extent. If anything he’s the exception that proves the rule: bloggers don’t do investigative journalism. They certainly don’t and and cannot all that easily simply phone potential sources or interview subjects (although it would be great if more would attempt to do so). Realistically most bloggers don’t have the time to chase up leads and sources as a good journalist does. It’s just that increasingly journalists don’t do that anyway. But some certainly still do. I frequently get rung by journalists seeking leads on which local academic or other expert they should talk with when they’re trying to put together a story.

    In addition to talking to sources etc (i.e. the basic journalist’s craft that bloggers don’t do), MSM newspapers still do things that the blogosphere doesn’t and realistically can’t. For example, the SMH maintains a FOI reporter Matthew Moore who regularly unearths material (albeit not usually earth-shattering) by patiently pursuing FOI applications. It also recently ran an excellent series on judges and courts that must have taken lots of time and resources. MSM newspapers commission regular opinion polling which forms a staple input to bloggers’ analyses including Possum. And so forth.

    Even fairly undistinguished political reporters like Peter Hartcher sometimes come up with stories which, although they may have been leaked to them by politicians for their own purposes, are nevertheless valuable grist to the mill of bloggers and other serious analysts. Hartcher’s story about the machinations preceding the overthrow of Rudd in yesterday’s SMH is a case in point. It was clearly sourced from a leak (almost certainly Richo) but Hartcher also clearly spoke to others in putting the story together. Although in one sense it’s mere footie game journalism, I think it adds to our understanding of the political process and it is a story that a blogger could not readily have put together.

  9. Kevin Rennie says:

    Ken, it helps if you’re retired!

  10. Don Arthur says:

    Ken’s right, we shouldn’t be turning this into a bloggers vs journalists contest.

    I doubt that the major problem is the quality of journalists. It’s the constraints they have to work under.

    It’s not just journalists who have an interest in finding a financially sustainable model for news reporting and analysis.

  11. Mel says:

    Tim Lambert also does some original research and communicates directly with sources. I think some folk think it is harder to do than it actually is. I was able to get a quote from Prof Fred Singer from the US on an allegation Tim Flannery made about him in “The Weather Makers” with an email that took one minute to write. It can be that easy and more bloggers should certainly try it.

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