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.
You’re not going to find the term “proper journalism processes” in a textbook on the subject because its really just a bit of mental shorthand of my own, a quick way of referring to a whole set of steps that should happen in the process of publishing a news report.
As I thought about that throwaway line, I was sure I had written about it before, so I did some searching on my website. What I found that that I had written about it, a lot, but that the writing was scattered over several different posts, one of them being a natural prequel to the post you are reading now (What journalists do (part one): the narrowing of the eyes).
To unpack “proper journalism processes”, I have gathered various bits of text together from those articles. Here they are, panel-beaten to make sense, I hope, for aspirant journalists and members of the public who’d like to understand more about what they read in the news.
HOW NEWS TRADITIONALLY ESTABLISHES TRUST
Let’s imagine a newspaper in a city (go with me on this, I do know that such a thing no longer really exists, but situating it in this way might make it easier to understand). The newspaper has reporters, the people who go out and gather the news.
When one of these reporters is sent, say, to cover an event in which the mayor opens a new housing development, their report on the event is read by everyone who was at the event (or at the very least by the dignitaries who were there).
If they interview a local businessperson, that person and their employees scrutinise the report for accuracy.
When a reporter covers an event at a local school, every single teacher and parent at that school read the report and note whether it reflects the event properly.
Over time, the reporter’s name (and their publication) become trusted – people know that if that journalist/publication says it happened, then it did.
That’s how external trust in the veracity of a report or a publication is established. (And it is this external trust that has been eroded by the “everywhereness” of news on the Internet.)
HOW A NEWS PUBLICATION ESTABLISHES VERACITY INTERNALLY
Reporters are a varied bunch, but some traits are inherent: disregard for authority, curiosity and general bolshiness are a given. Some are careful, dogged types, and others are arrogant and egotistical. Some hunt for a scoop. Others want to hold truth to power. Some just want a quiet life, perhaps as a municipal reporter. All live to see their byline in the paper. In general, though, they are a troublesome lot, because they have to be. (And, yes, some of them, some of the time, are so driven by ego (or so short of money) that they may be susceptible to manipulation).
How is all this managed in a news organisation?
This is probably best understood in the context of investigative journalism. When reporters start to investigate hidden wrongdoings and skulduggery, things become dangerous. The troublesome reporter is now working on the margins of society, getting leads and information from sources, some of whom are shady, and all of whom have their own agendas. There is always the chance that something can go wrong.
There’s a system to deal with this that has been in place at news publications all over the world for decades. With some variations, and differences in how things are named, here’s what happens to that big scoop from well-placed sources. (And these process will apply to the straightforward report too).
The first line of defence is the news desk, usually staffed by experienced people who have themselves been reporters. They will read the scoop, narrow their eyes and ask penetrating questions about sources (more about sources a little lower down), facts and background checks.
If they think there is something amiss, they will send the reporter back to the drawing board. They will also talk to more senior staff and alert them to the fact that the story is on the radar. In many cases, the story idea may have originally come from the news desk, or those more senior editors, and may be worked on by a team of people, or be done by a specialised investigative unit.
But in all cases, a range of people – many of them experienced – work on a story of this nature.
If it is decided to go ahead and publish, the story will then be edited by another team of senior people (in South African terms, the sub-editors), who will read it and question it and think about it. If they are worried about aspects of it, they will alert their boss (the chief sub-editor). That person may double-check with the news desk and other senior people that this or that aspect of the story is correct, or whether a particular inconsistency has been spotted. If these objections are substantial enough, the story could be sent back to the reporter to be worked on again.
At the top of all this sits the Editor, who will usually have a deputy and one or more assistant editors to consult. But they carry final legal responsibility for what is published. The Editor is the one who will have to go to court if the sh*t hits the fan.
WHAT ARE ‘SOURCES’?
Whether someone is a reporter filing three quick breaking news paragraphs, or an online editor scanning Twitter for today’s hot stories, the crucial thing is being sure of the source. For the reporter, that means knowing the credibility of the person from whom they have heard the news (is it the mayor’s spokesperson who had decided to break ranks? Or is it someone who heard something at a dinner party?).
For the online editor, that means understanding the difference between a report from an unknown community radio station in a country other than their own and a report from an agency like Agence France-Press. Note – this doesn’t cast aspersions on community radio stations. It just means unless the journalist understands the context and has local knowledge, they should cross-check such reports against other news outlets, or with people who live in that region.
OTHER KINDS OF JOURNALISM, SAME KINDS OF PROCESSES
As outlined above, the basic building block of journalism is the hard news report: for the sake of argument, that report written about a speech given by the mayor of a town. Fact-checking processes for a news report like this will depend on the publication’s fact-checking policies, the resources and time at hand, and the extent to which the news desk relies on the reporter (a text by a veteran of 30 years standing who is celebrated for never getting things wrong will be looked at differently from a report by a new reporter, in her first week on the job and freshly arrived from another city in the country).
But however senior the reporter, the text will always be read, assessed and checked. The report will be subjected to further checking by sub-editors.
A variant of the hard news report is the investigation of allegations or claims or a narrative by someone who approaches the newspaper. Someone might ask for an appointment or phone the newsdesk, and tell a personal story of being harassed at work by the mayor. The first line of defence will often be instinct: does the person seem credible? If the claims are baseless (the person claims that the harassment by the mayor was instigated by invisible people, for instance), a decision might be taken to move on. But if gut instinct says the person is credible, their claims will still be checked, and preferably corroborated by other people, and the mayor will be asked for comment. Internal details of the narrative will be checked for consistency.
Aside from these bread-and-butter reports, various people on a publication might be editing features (a long interview with the mayor), analysis (taking apart what the mayor might have meant in their speech) or “soft” news – a page of the mayor’s favourite recipes.
In all of those cases, there will be processes in place to check the internal accuracy of the text (is the mayor’s name spelt correctly throughout? does one of the recipes mention an ingredient that is then not mentioned in the method of cooking?).
The fundamental principle always applies: as far as is humanly possible, the facts will be correct.
In the case of opinion pieces, there are several kinds: movie or theatre reviews spring to mind. Then there’s the humorous or satirical column. And there are a lot of opinion pieces in which the writer is simply expressing their views about the events of the day. So an opposition politician might write a piece expressing what they think about the speech by the mayor, and calling for their removal from office. Or a climate change expert might write a piece expounding on the faultlines in the mayor’s climate change remarks, and outlining what policies they think should be in place.
In all of these cases, factual assertions made in the opinion piece will be checked against reality: if the movie critic gets the name of the movie slightly wrong, that will be corrected. If the satirical columnist attributes something to a public figure that they simply did not say, then that will be queried (is the writer making a deliberate error? let’s ask them!)
WHERE DOES JOURNALISM FIND ITSELF NOW?
The explosion of social media and the implosion of journalism revenues have stripped publications of a depth of experience. In countless publications worldwide, resources and experience and time are in critically short supply. Because money is in critically short supply.
I urge you to pay for your journalism. Facts matter, and it takes more than a Google search to nail down the truth. It takes people, who have to be paid. So just take that subscription. It really does matter.
READ MORE (these articles are the sources for the post above)
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