What journalists do (part two): the checking of the facts

Earlier this year, I wrote about the problem of knowing which journalists or publications to trust in a sea of contradictory information.

After I had published the post, I realised that there was a throwaway line about “proper journalism processes” that could do with some expansion. I said:

… a place to start might be local, and small. If there’s a small community publication or radio station in your area, start there. Listen to their reports, read their articles. Does what they say seem fair and reasonable to you, does it match with what you know to have happened in the place that you live? If you are lucky enough to find such a publication, pay attention to the wider sources that they may be using and quoting. Because if they have applied the proper journalism processes to their own work (with the end result that their journalism matches with your knowledge of the world), they will be applying those processes to all the sources they use.

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How to stay on the right side of the law in journalism

In my years as a sub-editor, manager and trainer at South African news publications, I wrote a host of training materials – one of the most used being my one-pager on the legal side of reporting in South Africa.

I published that verbatim in 2013, aimed at reporters and editors.

In 2022, it’s still relevant. Here, I have updated it, and added some context for people who are not necessarily part of the journalism world, but who might need the information. Or who might simply want to know what rules govern reporting practice in this country (or should govern them, anyway).
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Journalism: Who you gonna trust?

Every year Nieman Lab publishes a set of journalism predictions for the following year, and every year at least one of them really stands out for me.

At the end of 2021, the stand-out prediction was the piece by Simon Allison entitled: More news is the problem, not the solution. In brief, his point is that journalists are on the frontline of the deluge of information in which all us flounder. And that what journalists do often just adds to the deluge. Instead, he suggests:

Journalism now functions to condense, contextualize, and curate the sheer volume of information that is out there and accessible to all — to stand between readers and the abyss of the infodemic.

I agree with him whole-heartedly, but I think there’s a wider problem at hand.
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Let’s celebrate those who uncover corruption

“The government is a cover for corruption.”

In the dying days of 2021, working with Al Jazeera playing the background, these words in the subtitles of By The People, a documentary by Fatima Lianes about an indigenous community in Mexico, made me look up from my screen.

That one sentence (which you can see about 20 minutes into the video) is breath-taking in its simplicity. And it encapsulates so much that people feel is wrong with the world we live in now: instead of serving the people, governments simply serve as the façade behind which corruption flourishes.
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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. Continue reading

When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.

An example from an article on the Facebook page of a radio station illustrates the point:

“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”

See that alleged?
It’s in the wrong place (and is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done: Continue reading