Great journalism – impartial but not neutral?

It’s sad in some ways that a lot of great writing and journalism has been inspired by tragedy and loss, but at the same time, it often allows some good to come out of the events by providing insight and inspiration. Three articles I’ve read recently reinforced that, along with also highlighting an interesting point from a book I’m currently reading on media ethics which states that journalism should be impartial but not neutral.

The mainstream media has been full of coverage of both the tragic events in Oslo, and the death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27, with the usual mix of straight news reports, opinion, and a particularly horrific example of someone trying to cash in on search traffic on the Huffington Post. I’m not going to dignify it with a link, but using the example of Amy Winehouse to supposedly illustrate lessons for small business owners is pretty bad, compounded by the fact it’s not a great article, and the author has claimed she wasn’t aware of the term ‘linkbait’ despite running a marketing and PR company for about 9 years.

Out of all of the mainstream media coverage regarding Amy Winehouse, it’s telling that the best article has been written by comedian and actor Russell Brand, who covered both his personal relationship with the singer, but also the treament of addiction and addicts by society. Published on The Guardian website, it’s received a lot of respect for the way he tackled the subject.

At the same time, I caught up on two posts by Christian Payne – sadly within the last month, two pilots he’d flown with, interviewed and got to know have both died. One heroically saved the life of his passengers, whilst the other worked for the Kenyan Wildlife Service to help prevent animal poaching amongst other duties. Christian’s articles are even more touching due to the fact that he’s also an accomplished photographer and interviewer, and his photos, videos and audio interviews with each pilot helps us to know them posthumously.

Journalism: Impartial not Neutral

Both authors knew the subjects of their articles to some extent, and that personal insight and knowledge of the subject (and in Brands case, his own experience with addition), gives an additional impact to stories which elsewhere would be a straight news report. I’ve also been involved with reporting on the deaths of people I knew via my work, including former colleagues, and to be completely neutral about it would be impossible.

But all three articles, and hopefully my own, do provide impartiality – Christian is not writing his posts for a news organisation, but for his personal blog, and doesn’t have the editorial restrictions he might have done for a media organisation, but as an experienced and talented media creator, he’s done a great job of sharing his reaction, the background of the people involved, and also leaves us feeling sad about the loss of the two men involved, but inspired by what they had achieved.

Neutrality is defined as refusing to take sides or make a judgement. Impartiality is defined as making decisions based on objective criteria rather than bias or prejudice. We can say that the loss of those in Oslo, Amy Winehouse and the two pilots is tragic for all of us for a number of reasons, and be thankful that there are those who can provide the context and insight into the reasons why.

On one hand I do worry that resource and time-stripped media outlets chasing page views via attention-grabbing breaking news and linkbait headlines mean that these types of article will be increasingly harder to find. On the other, I’m thankful that the availability and access to self-publishing, combined with the recommendation of social networks, mean that they’ve never been more accessible to us all online. The rise of content farms and the mishandling of increased knowledge of analytics, SEO and digital marketing means that far too many writers and journalists are pursuing the wrong things, and perhaps we should all try and do something as engaged readers to encourage others to be more active in highlighting and sharing writing which is really giving us something valuable, rather than simply regurgitating links almost mindlessly to increase our own audience on social networks?

 

Am I evil? The dark side of the web…

It’s apparently easy to be seduced by the dark side when it comes to blogging, and I never even realised it had happened.

At some point, an arbitrary line was drawn as a hang up from traditional media. The great and good subconsciously set the ethics of blogging around ‘quality’ content, a lack of advertising, and denying that anyone ever checks the rank of their blog, or sometimes submits their own content to Digg or Stumbleupon. There is a slight get-out clause if you’re already well established as an A, or possibly B-list member of the blogosphere, but essentially you have the basis of the monastic blogging community. Just keep writing open, honest, quality content and relax as the world discovers you.

Sat on the other side of the equation are the blogs which offer readers the hope of making money online, or getting to the top of whichever ranking you like using some simple tools, and by downloading an e-book on the best affiliate schemes. They love to self-promote, follow 1000s on Twitter, and are happy to recommend affiliate schemes they’ve just signed up for.  They don’t publish a lot of original content, and tend to reuse ideas from more legitimate sites like Problogger.net.

It’s a simple guide, and easy to believe in. It’s a shame it’s wrong.

For starters, with 140 million + blogs, it’s perfectly viable to publish quality content for months without anyone stumbling across it. And this monastical approach can easily lead to someone giving up, or looking for ways to self-promote themselves to at least get some eyeballs onto their blog, even if it leads to a 99% bounce rate. Increased competition in every niche means it’s ever harder to be the main tech blog, or the first mommy to write about raising a child.

Even harder to accept is the idea that others might have a different idea of what makes for quality – and that our idea of a spammy blog might actually be of value to someone who hasn’t come across the original source of the information, or might have never had the chance to attract readers without a self-submitted stumble once in a while.

That’s the hardest to accept because we’ve been taught to seek out the accepted levels of quality since childhood. We were shown Shakespeare and Dickens to aspire to, we see broadsheets as superior to the tabloids, and essays and dissertations require a minimum length to be submitted. And we act shocked when someone reverts to Anglo-Saxon.

But the truth of the matter is that the quality of a piece of work, whether blog, newspaper, or verbal tirade, is down to the individual looking at it. It’s not about an expert author carefully crafting literature – it becomes about whether it confers a value to the individual. To insert a suitably literary quote: “the death of the author is the birth of the reader.”

If we really accept that modern publishing is solely about the needs of the individual who reads and interacts with it, then we should be happy that every part of the spectrum is represented – from the ad-free academic discussing topics with other scholars, to the make money blogs offering the same get rich schemes that appear on flyers on lamposts and through our letterboxes. And we should leave it to the end users to decide which work provides them with entertainment or value, even if we do placate ourselves by perhaps offering some type of warning for scams and pyramid schemes *. Or we rank down those works we disagree with via the same voting mechanisms we use to promote and share content we value and feel is relevant to those around us.

It’s why those of us fortunate enough to be gainfully employed in roles which allow us the indulgence of blogging and social networking for work as well as pleasure should stop looking down on those who may be looking at blogging as a mechanism for fame and reward to change their lives in some way.

It’s why, when it comes to money making spam blogs: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,”

I’m looking forward to the comment which will hopefully follow. Don’t forget to Digg, Stumble, and even print this post and send it to all your friends!

*Incidentally, if any blog or website offers you the chance to make money without much effort, or with a simple automated programme, the odds are pretty high it’s a scam. Trust me. If you’re seriously looking for ways to make money online, I”d advise only listening to those who are open and honest about the fact it takes a lot of hard work and luck, as it does anywhere else!

(Cheers to @snowcialmedia for the prompt to post…it might not have been quite what you had in mind!)

What the Long Tail is missing…

I’ve just finished re-reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (see Marketing Resources, or the excellent Long Tail blog), and still think it’s an essential book for anyone involved with the digital world – so all of us, really.

I do think that many people seem to wilfully ignore Anderson’s assertion that it’s an AND culture, rather than an OR culture. Simply because the long tail of niches is now available and attracting interest does not mean that the short head of hits will disapear…just that the relationships and audience for both has changed. I might watch a three minute fan video created in Halo 3 on Youtube, but that doesn’t exclude me from going to see a film at the cinema on the same evening, for example.

But there is one question, I’d love to ask, particularly as Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine. And that’s how he sees the role of the professional Editor/Journalist/Writer developing as they are now forced to coexist within the blurred world of the amateur and professional blogger and writer. The Long Tail suggests there will always be standout publications/websites/writers producing the hits at the head of the graph, but does this provide evidence that there will always be a need for professional staff in editorial teams?

I have my own theories, of course, which I’ll be exploring over the next few days. They begin with the ideas that writing is a skill as well as an art form, and that in a world of infinite choice, consistency is an important commodity. As is inspiration and quality. But I’d love to hear more takes on the idea.