I had to do a last minute rejig of Friday’s lecture so that we could talk about the coverage of Gaddafi’s death. Quite a few of the students seemed to have followed the story and found it interesting so they’re probably on the right degree course! A lot of them were shocked that most British media outlets chose to show graphic images of Gaddafi prominently. That was interesting because I thought maybe the YouTube generation would have a different attitude – it’s out there so you have to share it. Clearly that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve pointed them in the direction of Mary Hockady’s blog about why the BBC took the decision to show the images. The comments after the article are interesting with one person even asking if the images contravened the BBC’s Code of Ethics regarding Safeguarding Children. I’m still thinking about that one. I certainly didn’t want to see the photos and video but I did want to see first hand the available evidence that suggested he’d been killed. But that’s probably because I’m a journalist. Would members of the public be happy to hear John Simpson or whoever telling them that they’d seen the grim images on their behalf so the audience didn’t have to, sparing them the trauma?
So most of the lecture was about verification and sources for stories. We grappled with the dilemma facing all newsrooms – speed versus accuracy. The students are generally quite keen on the accuracy thing! But they also realised there’s a huge temptation to cover stories just because they’re too good to miss. In the end, we vaguely concluded that social media/UGC/citizen journalism mean that images and video are shared round the world far quicker than any traditional news organisation can match and far more quickly than it takes to carry out traditional 2-source verification. So the best a news organisation can do is to be transparent about what it does and doesn’t know for sure and what sources it’s using. Obviously in-house expertise allows the journalists to assess which sources are credible and which aren’t. This kind of transparency also helps the verification process because mistakes can, theoretically, be rectified quickly. Bulletins would have a different approach from rolling news though because they’re programmes of record where journalists can stand still for a moment and tell the audience that, at this moment in time, here’s what we can be sure of.
It made me wonder if news journalism should take a leaf out of the world of science especially after reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science piece in the Guardian on Friday. Read the article in full because it’s good but here’s a short extract:-
Science has authority, not because of white coats, or titles, but because of precision and transparency: you explain your theory, set out your evidence, and reference the studies that support your case. Other scientists can then read it, see if you’ve fairly represented the evidence, and decide whether the methods of the papers you’ve cited really do produce results that meaningfully support your hypothesis.
Is that something journalism could learn from?