Jeff Jarvis and the undermining of journalism

Reading Jeff Jarvis at his Buzzmachine blog and his Guardian column I sometimes find things to agree with but the strongest sense is that he is on a mission to destroy journalism. He so often seems to want to undermine the imperfect practices of journalism that have developed over centuries that it is as if there is a Dalek loose on the web.

What I mean by journalism is the gathering and sifting of facts and opinions, cutting through the noise to present a coherent story. The outcomes of this process vary which is why it is important that there is a range of organisations carrying it out. Some will have been misled, some will be biased, some will have made mistakes and some will have found different facts and opinions. Over time readers decide which of these sources they mainly choose to trust. Readers, listeners and viewers who are more media literate will look at the output of several organisations and reach their own conclusions.

This week Jarvis starts his Guardian column (also at Buzzmachine) thus:

The fundamental architecture of news has shifted – again. We’ve already seen that news organisations’ exclusive hold on distribution and content creation has dissolved. But now it appears that their pre-eminence as news gatherers is also challenged, especially during breaking news events. So during big news stories, what is the role of the journalist now? To link, it seems.

Certainly the architecture of news is shifting as it did with the penny post and the telephone but faster and with greater effect. I am not sure that news organisations ever had an “exclusive hold on distribution” but a much wider range of the source material of journalists is now easily available to most.

“Witness reporters” have new tools (audio recorders, video cameras and mobile phones) and can distribute more widely through blogs, Facebook, YouTue and other channels that Jarvis mentions.

In the early days of newspapers they depended on letters from “witness reporters” brought by stage coach or sailing ship: letters from people on the scene have continued to be a valuable source until recently and people phoning home continue to be important.

As Jarvis points out, most of the students at Virginia Tech who posted on the web were simply saying “I’m OK, Dad” and their audiences did not come to them with “journalistic expectations of completeness, verification, and identity”. He says that before reporters (he uses the pejorative “news vultures”) arrived at the university, news organisations depended on these accounts. The stories were already there and Jarvis asks: “What was big media to do, then? Link.”

Of course, linking has has to be an important part of the way journalism is done now. But Jarvis takes this argument further and suggests that technology now makes it possible for the “witness reporters” to stream live from the scene. He asks: “What does big media do when there is no time to vet and verify? They’ll have to issue caveats. And link.”

In these circumstances reporters have always used material prefaced by a phrase such as “according to unverified sources”. But they have also sought to verify and to filter out the gossip and outrageous surmises which surrounds every major event. Similar criteria have to be applied to linking.

Jarvis takes his linking argument further and discusses the Washington Post story about the treatment of Iraq veterans at an army hospital. The NY Times was criticised for not not running a story of their own quickly enough. He says: “The Times was better off linking to the Post and saving its reporting resources to uncover its own critical stories. The Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, to journalism at its source.”

I agree a quick story quoting the Post as the source and providing a link is right. But not to follow up, checking the story and seeking new information, would undermine the whole basis of the way journalism has, and should continue to operate.

Most stories which hold authority to account, as the Walter Reed hospital did, develop as more reporters carry out their own investigations. It is the pressure of intense investigation by the media which unearths new facts and detail which lead to getting things done.

As for the assertion the Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, that must come from some other world. Scoops are part of the fight for circulation and unique users which, in the end, pay journalists.

Jarvis argues that newspapers should stop wasting resources covering what everybody else is covering. Again, there is truth in this. A media scrum is often unproductive and a reporter on the scene should know when to call the office and say: “I”m leaving the doorstep to the agencies and going to talk to some people who I hope will give us a fresh angle.”

So to Jarvis’s “new rule for journalism: do what you do best. Link to the rest.” That, surely, is why news agencies were invented.

I have no argument with Jarvis’s call to work co-operatively with witness-reporters, community members, experts, people who publish on their own, finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them. This is a way to release staff to concentrate on new areas and the things they do best.

But simply linking sounds rather like a combination of blogging and Google. I don’t think that is what is wanted from trusted news organisations. And I very much doubt if it will fill many pay packets.

And yes, I am writing from the perspective of a reporter. I also believe that it also serves the reader best.

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