Jo Chandler left The Age yesterday after 23 years at the paper, most recently as chairwoman of The Age Independence Committee. Reading her fantastic farewell opinion piece this morning gave me a lot to think about, and I wanted to make sure I blogged a few of those thoughts while it’s still fresh in my mind.
Chandler talks about the duty journalists have to “chase and probe,” to present a full picture of the news and not allow their stories to be skewed by the agenda of the rich. With diminished budgets, the risk is that newsrooms and journalists become more reliant on PR-spun stories that require little effort, subsidised travel, and stories from mining companies, sport organisations or industry leaders who have the money and the savvy to make sure their stories make the news. As Chandler acknowledges, subsidised travel has its place in enabling journalists to tell important stories of war and humanitarian crises, but we must always ask ourselves “What am I not being shown, who am I not talking to?”.
Fewer journalists in newsrooms put not just money, but time, at a premium. The few left manning the fort will not have the time our predecessors had to hit the road, investigate stories from multiple angles, chase opposing sources. According to Chandler:
“Proximity and ease become determinants of the news agenda, warping it in favour of low-hanging fruit. Rural and remote communities vanish further over the horizon. The powerless fade further from consciousness.”
I experienced a little of what Jo Chandler is talking about in my two weeks interning for a major suburban newspaper organisation earlier this year. Numerous publications work out of one newsroom, most with only one journalist dedicated to covering each area’s local paper. Given the time constraints of filing so much copy by deadline each week, reporters rarely had an opportunity to actually visit the communities whose stories they are telling and whose citizens they are meant to be engaging with. I relished the opportunities I had to head out of the office and do face to face interviews, and witness first hand the events I was writing about. Relying on press releases and follow up phone interviews still resulted in some great stories and exposure for people and organisations doing wonderful things for their communities, but I have no doubt that the best stories come from time spent in the community, being a part of it and not just a detached entity on the telephone.
As journalists we can’t brush aside the “ethical discomfort” we will inevitably feel at some point in our careers. If we want to ensure our collective future as a profession that has value in society, that is worth paying for, we have a responsibility to keep digging, to set the agenda and not allow it to be driven by government or big business. I agree with Chandler that we need a variety of experiences outside the newsroom to hone our craft, improve the quality of reporting and ensure we go home each night proud of the work we are doing.
Read Jo Chandler’s opinion piece here:
Independent ethos can still prevail in the digital age