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Ask Michael

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below. At the beginning of next week, Dr Michael Higgins will respond to the most interesting, useful and/or popular questions. Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

Thank you for all your questions and comments, I have enjoyed reading them. Please keep them coming in the week 3 ‘Ask Michael’ step.

David The’Second asks: Why is ‘Bad News’ a priority over ‘Good News’ given the effect ‘Bad News’ could have on the general pubic? - Bring about fear, stress, or other negative emotions, are issues such as this ever taken into consideration when covering negative news stories? Also, would it be fair to assume that more frequent positive news stories (Which do take place everyday but a less frequently covered) would have the opposite effect on society? And if so, why is it ok to induce feeling of fear/panic in the general public over restoring their faith in humanity and bringing a little positivity into their life for a change?

It’s an interesting question, David. Content analyses of news content, starting with a classic study by Galtung and Ruge in the early sixties, have always found “negative news” to be more attractive than positive. We can see how that might be justifiable, such that we need to know about threats in order to preserve our well-being, but it is a worthwhile discussion on whether a better balance should be struck.

Yumonosan Esquire asks: Thank you Michael; this first week did a nice job laying out the basics of the journalism profession; I’m looking forward to the next 3 weeks. Some questions that came up for me throughout the week:
1) One thing that came up again and again this week was the question of bias in the media, and many people expressed the opinion that they don’t trust any news coming from “mainstream” sources. Could you talk a little about this? How do journalists respond to accusations of bias? How does such evident distrust of the media color your work? How can journalists and the industry as a whole regain trust?
2) Thanks to technology and small, mobile recording devices everywhere, it is easier than ever to document events. Could you also argue that thanks to all this new technology, all these new media to consume news, all this new ways to distort and edit sources, we have the opposite problem, that of white noise and distortions drowning out the truth? Some of the most well-photographed and well-documented events in the recent past (9/11; Gujarat, India riots; Crimea and eastern Ukraine) are contested by various groups who offer their own proof positive evidence to back up their narrative.

Thanks Yumonosan and Trevor for bringing up this most interesting of questions! I’m not sure there is quite the level of “dislike” of “mainstream media” that is commonly supposed. There is occasional frustration at what it is labelled as poor, irresponsible or, and this is a word we should use advisedly, “biased” news content. More often than not, however, this frustration takes no account of the limits of the news gathering process and the demands of the majority of the audience. But even where frustration at news content has some justification, I think is actually more of a sense of disappointment that a piece of journalism might not have met the standards we have come to expect. It is a shared regard for journalism that drives us expect more and more. We should bear in mind, however, that we, too often, set those standards extremely high. We need to try and understand the journalist’s perspective, which is what this course might help us to do.

As to how journalists should respond to serious accusations of bias: with the facts, and with a demonstrable commitment to balance where appropriate.

As to less serious accusations of bias, most journalists are only too willing to engage in constructive discussion over the direction of their work. They also know that they will never please everyone, and should have the confidence of knowing their own professional standards and their commitment to them.

Philip Brain asks: Hello Michael. My question involves bias. I am of the opinion that bias is an integral and necessary part of the bulk of journalism, whether it be in print, the Internet, or on video. In fact, the bias of many journalists has become their trademark. We all prefer to read stories or watch films which support our own position. At what point do journalists step over the line by trying to inject their own personal biases into a story and is there an ethical and objective way to address this? With many issues, especially those dealing with war, politics, poverty, violence, and others it is virtually impossible not to have biases.

I spoke about avoiding bias above. It is true to say that the “national interest” is a bias in itself. Some time ago, I wrote about the criticisms that Kate Adie’s excellent reports from Tripoli, after the US bombing of the city, received on the basis that they were not sufficiently attentive to the national interest: extraordinarily, attacked for not being biased enough! We need also to take account of:
1. What Martin Bell and others have called a “journalism of attachment”, that involves becoming involved in a story in an empathetic level. In journalism studies, we also talk of the rise of “bearing witness” in journalism: a kind of emotion-driven truth-telling. This is attractive and evocative to an audience, but is more suited to some subject matters than others (humanitarian issues, for example), and has to be exception to the norm.
2. The partisan, grumpy journalist as a “brand”. Such are mostly to be found on the opinion pages, and are an enjoyable part of the news landscape. We could also point to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News as an example from broadcast news.
3. In some national settings, this is also manifest as the confrontational interviewer. I’ve called this type “the public inquisitor” and my friend and colleague at UCLA Steven Clayman describes them as “tribunes of the people”.

Elizabeth Hawkins asks: Do you have to show interviewees the full article to get their “approval” before it is published, or is the interview in itself a form of consent to use the material which the journalist has gathered? What do you do if an interviewee complains after the article has been published? I.e. Because they think the information is wrong or are unhappy about the way the journalist has presented it.

We are doing interviewing in the course, Elizabeth, so I don’t want to steal my colleague’s thunder. There is rarely an obligation, unless agreed in advance, to show the subject of an interview a copy of the article for approval. The words of the interviewee should always be dealt with truthfully and placed in context in order that no complaint should arise.

Peter Fluck asks: Should a journalist always reveal whether or not sources have been paid? >Ideally, yes.

Pascale Privey asks: Timeliness means reactivity and often rush ; sometimes it takes time to collect the right informations, knowledge and contacts. How does a journalist balance all that antagonistic requirements? >That is why it is such a difficult job at times!

Roxanne Levy asks: How do you motivate yourself to write an article if you don’t feel inspired? Especially if you are writing all the time. What do you do to resolve this?

Start in the middle rather than at the beginning. Start with the one sentence you know needs to go in there. That’s how I begin an academic piece. Others might have other tips. I’d like to know them myself, sometimes!

Ange White asks: Can you outline what the code of conduct is for journalists? We saw in the Levinson Inquiry that journalists hacked phones which resulted in the closure of the News of the World newspaper. And yet a consistent message in this early stage of this course is journalists need to be prepared to follow the story. Where do they draw the line?

Hello Ange. In formal terms and in the UK setting, journalists are subject to the law in the same way as the rest of us. For example, the hacking of phones is contrary to communications legislation, and any alleged offender would be subject to prosecution irrespective of their profession. (Read The law relating to phone hacking for a useful insight). Likewise, journalists are subject to the same laws regarding trespass, breaking and entering, harassment, or libel or defamation as everyone else. In terms of professional standards, the best expression of this in the UK context (in my view) is the NUJ Code of Conduct. I hope this is of some help.

Israel Flores asks: What are ethical parameters to take into account when reporting about personal stories or any story regarding vulnerable subjects?

These are extremely important matters, Israel and Christopher. My colleague Dr Sallyann Duncan has particular expertise in this area, so I’ll ask her to say more on this later.

Jemma Byrne asks: How does one go about building up contacts in areas where they usually couldn’t reach? I.e government, certain business etc

Start by emailing or phoning politely and asking for an interview. You’ll be surprised at how many yeses you’ll get. And if you see someone, say hello and give them your card.

Joana Taborda asks: I would like to know what are the main differences between writing a story for a a written newspaper and for an online magazine?

Hi Joana. We’ll be looking at style later. Looking forward to your contribution.

Sophie Buchan asks: I am currently in 6th year right now and go to school in Glasgow. As a blogger and someone who is leaving school next year, I am curious as to howl journalists will make a living as print media fades. Is it possible that ‘online, or digital media’ is the new thing ?

Digital media is the new thing, and will have a great influence over the direction of news. But it is not yet the only thing: and we will always need great journalists whatever the platform happens to be. We will also need to pay them, if we want them to perform to their full capacity. News organisations haven’t quite mastered the art of drawing profit from the digital sector, but we can be assured that they are trying very hard to do so. And it is only with profit that they can employ journalists. Yet, the digital platforms are great for getting your material out there, and you should make the most of it. And share your blog with the rest of us, if you like!

Nicholas Rossiter asks: I read the newspapers online a lot , I enjoy a good well written article and also enjoy the comments from the readers , some of the comments can be quite scathing about the reporter of the article, how can you tolerate not being able to open a discussion with with some of the posters?

Journalists, quite understandably, can be reluctant to get into long discussions with those who are simply dead-set against their take on a story. It is not always because the journalists do not have the answers, but simply that they do not have the time. I agree with you, journalists must often be tempted to respond (and some do).

Mary McKeown asks: To what degree are journalists free to publish their stories Do some get buried by management? Is there more scope for stories to be published now that we have the internet? How will journalists make a living as print fades Is it possible to copyright your own pieces and then market them as a free lance? Do the laws of libel and defamation apply to internet journalism and what determines the country of prosecution?

Hello Mary. That very much depends on whether you are working exclusively for an news organisation when you put the story together. Inevitably stories get “spiked” (or otherwise not used) for various reasons. Law differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and this relates to Dominique’s point, but it is always best to explicitly assert your copyright and rights of authorship over your work, and retain your right to use it elsewhere. When working full time for a news organisation, that is not always possible (for the most understandable of reasons around the news company’s brand and the use of its resources), but it should always be possible as a freelancer.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde