A few years ago, looking for more info on something or other, I came across a website called Quora. It is quite useful. Ask a question, post that question on Quora and it will be seen worldwide. (Isn’t the web just marvellous, the information superhighway? Just think where we would be if it weren’t for the web. Bloody 1996, that’s where! Lord, I really do think I’m going to cry.)
Because you get responses from folk the world over - from all kinds of folk - not only can your question cover any number of subjects, but the responses could come from anyone - from a professor of linguistics in Papua New Guinea to a washed-up hack putting away a bottle of wine and listening to some rather fine jazz (Preach Brother by Fred Jackson. A link to a video is at the end) or even someone who knows what they are talking about and responds not just because they are in love with the sound of their own voice.
Over the years (and not that many, despite what that phrase makes it sound like), mainly about newspapers and related topics. And it has got to the point where if someone posts a question which the good folk who run Quora think I might care to supply an answer to, I get and email alerting me.
I received just one such email earlier this afternoon and have just spent the past hour or so writing a response. And in keeping with the title and on the principle of making as much as possible go as far as possible, I have decided to print my response here, too. The question was ‘Do journalists have a responsibility to remain unbiased in their reporting?’ Here is what I posted:
This question is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, and I shall get that difficulty out of the way first.
The problem is that the term ‘journalist’ is quite horribly vague: at its simplest it can be regarded to be pretty much anyone professionally and editorially involved in producing - well, what? All newspapers and magazines, all broadcasting news, all internet media intended to pass on information (often called ‘news)?
If so, the chief political correspondent of the New York Times (or whatever she/he calls her/himself) is a ‘journalist’, but so is the most useless reporter or sub-editor (US: copy editor) on the most obscure of weekly newspapers in the back of beyond dealing with the local flower festival and chemist’s opening times.
Even someone writing editorial copy for a pornography magazine, or for Horse And Hound, What Car and Tunnels And Tunneller (which does, or did, exist) will qualify. So here’s my question: does someone writing smutty double entendre for a porn magazine and trying to think up yet another word for ‘twat’ also count as a journalist? Er, yes, they do.
The fiftysomething bottle-blonde beauty editor (we have all met her and sometimes even shagged her) compiling ‘the best, most effective diet ever to get rid of those Christmas pounds’ for the January edition of You And Your Ego is as much a ‘journalist’ as that esteemed foreign correspondent, the late
Clare Hollingsworth (who apparently invented World War II when everyone else didn’t think it was possible), and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But I won’t labour the point.
Even if we whittle down just what that journalist is and stick more to what I imagine the questioner and others think ‘a journalist’ should be, her/his work - if she/he is not a specialist - covers far more than, as the cliche goes, speaking ‘truth to authority’ and ‘uncovering the truth’. Essentially, a reporter’s job is to provide enough words - copy - to fill the paper, and the sub-editor’s job is to prepare that copy for printing - laying out pages, cutting the copy to fit, checking facts, choosing pictures, writing captions etc.
Yet, were one to survey a random selection of the public who do not work in the media industries or who do not have any special knowledge and glean what they imagine a ‘journalist’ is, the cliches would continue to tumble out: she/he’s a professional who will work all hours to get to ‘the truth’, a hard drinker, someone
who would gladly do the job for nothing, someone for whom ‘the story’s the thing and nothing else matters’. Many journalists, the public fondly imagines live a life of shabby glamour, with the inside track on much, oh and have a cynical seen-it-all-before sense of humour.
But it isn’t Hollywood or TV, believe me, although being the bullshitters many hacks (the technical term for ‘journalist’) are, they are more than happy to perpetuate the sexy fiction and bask in the spurious glory of it all. I know I am.
OK, so I’ll play the game (something I actually dislike doing): do journalists have a responsibility to remain unbiased in their reporting? In theory, yes. If we are dealing with that kind of journalist who is a first cousin to the unicorn and the man in the Moon, yes, of course.Yes, always. Meanwhile, back in the real world . . .
Are Breitbart staff not journalists? Are Russia Today staff not journalists? Were the hacks who earned their daily crust reporting for and putting together Pravda not as much journalists as the saintly folk reporting for and putting together Britain’s Guardian or the Washington Post? What of the Breitbart, Russia Today and Pravda truths?
I shall end, however, by saying that Spotlight, the 2015 film starring Michael Keaton and others about the Boston Globe’s exposure of the cover-up of paedophiles in the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston was rather better and got a little closer to portraying the usual working life of a journalist than the usual Tinseltown schlock. But please bear in mind that in their daily working lives, nine out of ten journalists deal with far, far less vital stories. Writing up a story about the book and staff shortage at your local library or a new ticketing system in the city bus service is more usual fare.
Over to you, dear questioner (and get pissed a little more often, it does help).
A more reasoned and reasonable response might follow, but I think you and others get the point I am making, so probably not.
Hope I’ve put you off. If not, I have wasted 45 minutes.
. . .
Here is the Fred Jackson track. You might enjoy it more than reading the shite above.