17 July 2006

More on British Journalism

Last week I noted that much bad publicity for Apple seemed to be originating in the UK press, and questioned some of their journalism standards. While mentioning a few other issues where I believe journalism has a lot to answer for (eg MMR), I focused on Apple, not just because I am clearly a fan, but feel that my knowledge should allow me to be a better judge of the accuracy of such reporting.

Nevertheless, Charles in his comment to the post defended the quality of journalism in this country. Rather than being cheap, simplistic, or opportunistic, it was just "journalism".

Now, in my ongoing (one-man, and no doubt futile) quest to raise standards of journalism in this country, I'm going to try taking this whole issue further. And to do that, I'm going to remove any tainting of the argument by eliminating any issue to do with Apple Computer from the discussion. After all, Apple is capable of looking after itself, and the issues I'm trying to raise are far more important to the public of this country than any company or business - unfairly maligned or not.

My premise is this:
Journalism in this country has dumbed down; it writes articles that do not do justice to the complexity and full issues of a topic; it often single-issues the whole thing into some sort of X is Good, Y is Bad argument; it is led by fashion with little or no vision; there is also a concentration of ownership of the press at work that also leads to questions of impartiality both in political and business reporting. Basically, it has, I belive, lost its way. It no longer informs or educates, it merely tries to shock or create emotion. It is the ultimate spin machine in relation to politics, celebrity, business, etc. and in so doing invites the worst behaviour from all those whose professional or personal lives touch it. I'm not just talking about the Big Brother, Hello magazine, tabloid world of journalism. I'm talking about the broadsheet market. I think it's also had a degrading effect on some of our broadcast media reporting as well. I (in another case of cutting off my nose, Charles) long ago gave up listening to the Today programme which used to be so brilliant. But, I'm not alone. I have come across many people who have given up listening to this programme, and more knowledgeable commentators than me have questioned some of the reporting there.

To get the ball rolling on this and see if there is any common ground, let's start by taking something I think is a comparatively straightforward example of what I'm suggesting.

Last week, the (British) Times reported on the government's Energy Review publication with the following headline:
TV standby buttons will be outlawed

The first paragraph of the article went like this:
"The Government is to outlaw standby switches on televisions and video and DVD players to cut the amount of electricity wasted in the home."

The article did not link to the Energy Review document itself (c'mon Times, you can do better), which (for your benefit) is here.

I'm not going to dwell on the rest of the article nor on the 218 page government report (which looks to cover a wide range of interesting topics). I'm going to focus on that headline (which I thank Ars Technica for bringing to my attention). It's quite a claim that stand-by buttons will be outlawed after all. Of course, at a simplistic level, it's not a bad idea, but in reality what is bad about stand-by is that it was implemented very poorly in older devices (and some new ones), so doesn't save a lot of power. But if implemented correctly (e.g. in computers that have sleep functionality) it can actually be very good indeed for the environment. I was somewhat amazed that our government had decided that ALL stand-by functionality was bad and would be outlawed. So I downloaded the report. I searched for standby - no hits; I searched for stand-by - 3 hits. The most notable entry was this (which contained 2 of the search hits):

2.23 Aiming to limit stand-by power consumption, which in 2004 used 8% of all residential electricity and is a rising trend, is also a priority for the Market Transformation Programme. We will continue to press at international level for full implementation of the International Energy Agency’s 1 Watt initiative to reduce stand-by power consumption.

This is quite a clear statement and in no way can be misinterpreted that stand-by features are to be "outlawed".

Now, granted, the article was in the technology section of the Times, and their remit might be somewhat limited, but this simple example neatly sums up my disillusionment with journalism. I cannot understand:

1. Why in a review of a major policy document of 218 pages with important implications to everyone, does the article headline and lead with an issue that is addressed primarily in just one sentence and one paragraph of the document?
2. Having chosen its lead issue, why does the newspaper then clearly use a headline which is just flat-out wrong, and cannot be in any way justified from reading the report? A reader (especially one who glances at the article as most will) is left misinformed in both fact and overall in relation to the topic itself.

It would be particularly useful if either of the authors Lewis Smith or Mark Henderson could explain to me the answers to the above. Assuming we won't be so lucky to have them grace the comment pages here, perhaps I can beg Charles to defend his fellow technology journalists on this one? (Or, preferably, agree with me that, at least in this case, I have a point!)

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Stephen Mackenzie said...

I read newspapers less and less, as I often find them to be cluesless and apparently uninformed. Even my former favourite Independent often gets things subtly wrong. And that's just stuff I know about. I'm always concerned that I'll get mislead about something I don't know about.

And the BBC's news coverage frequently disappoints me, especially in the world of technology and science.

I blame it on cost-cutting and a lack of subeditors. And stuff.

Ian Hobson said...

Hi Stephen

Thanks for popping by. That at least makes 2 of us! This is exactly my concern - if we can't trust the stuff we know about, how can we trust the stuff we don't know about?

I'm hoping Charles will come back and defend the profession. To be fair to him, I think he's a good guy and decently competent. However, he did say there was nothing in the Dell-bursting-into-flames story. But
Ars Technica thinks there's more to it!

Thank goodness for RSS!