How the Sunday Times issue shames all of journalism

Sunday Times apology

The apology page in the Sunday Times, October 14, 2018.

This last weekend, the editor of the Sunday Times Bongani Siqoko issued an apology for the reporting done by the newspaper on the Cato Manor death squads and the Zimbabwe rendition saga.

And two years ago, the same editor apologised for the SARS “rogue unit” reports.

The latest apology has led to a range of commentary and opinion, and a lot of outrage about the state of South African journalism in general, and about the Sunday Times and its reporters in particular.

I too am outraged. But not for the same reasons as everyone else. Mine are specific to the traditions of the craft which has been my lifeblood for almost 35 years.

Pragmatic journalism – how to balance quality and speed

laptop with coffee

My desk at 6am.

Every day I get up early and, coffee in hand, report for virtual duty at allAfrica.com*.
The first order of business is to identify important developments on the African continent that have happened since the end of the last shift the previous evening, find those stories in allAfrica’s network of partners and get them up on the site, with speed.
This is a variation of an early morning routine I have done for many years – and speed is always part of the equation. There is always some new story, or a development on a running issue, that just has to get “out there” as soon as possible.
Working at speed in this way is popularly supposed to mean a decline in quality, as expressed succinctly on the Slow Journalism website:

“Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.”

How to find a free picture that really is free

Google Images search result screenshot

What you get if you search on “eating salad” in Google Images.

If you work on an online news website, or run a blog, or do social media posting for yourself or for your company, you are often going to need a picture to illustrate your work.
If you are lucky, you may have access to images from your organisation’s photographers, or to an agency service. But if you are not in a big organisation, you will need to go elsewhere. And even if you do have access to photo services, you may find a need to illustrate a story with a stock image – a story for a travel site about how to pack when going away on holiday will need a picture of a suitcase.
When looking for such a picture, you have two main considerations:

* You want a good picture – clear, relevant to your content and not too cheesy (we all know the kind of stock photo I am talking about. A friend and colleague describes it as “women smiling while eating salad”).

* You don’t want to use a picture that is copyrighted. It is just not okay to use the work of professionals without paying them. So you either pay or find an image that you can use for free.

Tips for writing an Internet news poll

Today – August 8, 2018 – there’s a poll on the News24 website on the topic of breastfeeding. It asks:

Is breastfeeding in public scandalous?

  Yes, it’s something that should be done in private

  No, but cover yourself

  No, it’s natural and breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure

The results of a News24 poll on breastfeeding

The results of the News24 poll.

The poll is just one way of asking a question about a burning issue – using what I think of as the “putting words in people’s mouths” option.

On the same day, MSN South Africa is using the same option for the poll choices:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

Yes, we are well on our way

No, people are afraid of change

It’s already too late for us

Things will never ‘get that bad’

I’m ready to emigrate

The results of an MSN South Africa poll on South African politics

The results of the MSN South Africa poll

W24 has the other kind of poll, the one where the vote options are narrowed down simple yes/no choices – it is asking:

Are you attending the #TotalShutdown march?

Yes

No

The results of a Woman24 poll on the Total Shutdown march.

The results of the Woman24 poll.

All three are framed in a multiple choice format, and you don’t see the results of the poll until you have voted.

None of these polls will yield a scientific result, of course – they are really just little bits of Internet fluff, designed to draw readers’ attention to an issue, or drive them to read a story, or perhaps just to generate a few more clicks.

Yet they are all over the Internet, and if they are part of the furniture, then why not do them well?

I have a seat-of-the-pants set of guidelines to making polls. Here they are*:

  1. The poll should be topical, based on the site’s understanding of the news of the day – and it should be changed as soon as it becomes outdated (the W24 poll above refers to an event that has already happened… not such a good idea).
  2. The options should be clear and easy for readers to understand. And broadly applicable. I’d argue that the third option in the News24 poll doesn’t reflect a broad consensus. Lots of people probably think breast-feeding is natural – but it’s unclear how many of those would venture the opinion “breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure”. The option is harder to choose when so narrowly framed – so No, it’s natural would probably have done the job.
  3. The options should not overlap – they should be different enough that a genuine choice has to be made. In the MSN poll the options are not clearly different from each other. Yes, we are well on our way, and It’s already too late for us are options on the same continuum. People are afraid of change is hard to understand and people might be ready to emigrate for reasons other than a fear that South Africa is likely to become like Zimbabwe. My options as potential answers might have been a simple Yes/No/Maybe. And if I had to put words in people’s mouths I might have done it like this:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

It’s a distinct possibility

No, we are a great country

We are already the next Zimbabwe!

 

  1. To get nuance right, run your poll past someone else – if they look blank, or bored, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
  2. Above all, put yourself in the reader’s shoes: run the question and options through in your mind as if you were seeing them for the first time. Do they make sense? Do they represent the sort of choices that most people might pick?

 

* I am doing some critique of the three polls I used as examples – not to show the particular sites up, but rather in a spirit of constructive criticism. I have made many flawed polls in my time!

The elements of a good headline

Newspaper page with headlines

The “joy to the weed” headline is a perfect example of one that relies on cultural understanding – in this case, it’s a reference to the Christian carol “Joy to the World”. Picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash.

In the good old days of print journalism, in the depths of a smoke-filled subs room, there was one thing a junior sub-editor* wanted: for a grizzled night editor, or revise sub, to look over and say “Good headline”.
The elements of a good headline then were that it was clever or witty, or contained a subtle play on words. And the basis of that cleverness was the assumption that the newspaper and its readers had a shared understanding of the world.
The first time I got that “good headline” accolade was for a brief two-paragraph story about a doctor somewhere in the East who was using ants (or some by-product of ants) to cure people of a long-forgotten (by me) ailment. My headline was:

Take two ants,
call me later

In a 1982 medical paper, the reference is explained – it’s based on “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”, an age-old joke about the telephone advice given by a doctor trying to get a little extra sleep.

Dodge fake news by using reputable sources – here’s a list

Tablet showing words like news and agencies

Picture: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images

A whole cottage industry has sprung up among journalists, reacting to the phenomenon of “fake” news. There’s no doubt this is a crucially important issue for our craft, and much needs to be discussed and done.

In the heat of that debate, though, we perhaps forget about readers, who are wondering if they will be the next person to share – inadvertently – some spurious bit of nonsense or propaganda. With that person in mind, I was interested to come across a list of WikiTribune’s preferred news sources.

WikiTribune, according to its Wikipedia entry, is a news website in which journalists with established backgrounds “research, syndicate and report on widely publicised news stories alongside volunteers who curate articles by proofreading, fact-checking, suggesting possible changes, and adding sources from other, usually long established outlets”.

News in the time of Generation Z

Group of teenagers on their phones

Picture: Nben54, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure I care much for the “generation” way of looking at the world. Baby boomer, Millennial… who cares, we are all people really.

These sweeping generalisations are not often useful – but I think there might be an exception: the cohort of people apparently called “the Linkster generation” or Generation Z. (Linkster? Surely not. I will be sticking with Z.)

The London Independent reckons that Generation Z makes up about 18 percent of the world’s population. These people grew up with social media, smart phones and apps. “Not only this, but someone born in 2002 is just going to have turned 15-years-old meaning they are developing into adults surrounded by both the help, expertise and pressures of social media, the internet and advanced technology.” (Wikipedia gives a wider date range for the birth years of Gen Z:  “demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to early-2000s as starting birth years.”)