Keeping it simple in order to match giants of the press

September 27, 2021 | 11:00
One can take a wild ride down many alleyways when reading about the history of the press, particularly in regards to Britain’s famed print industry, but news always boils down to covering the essentials. VIR’s Ray McRobbie offers his take on what is the most important when it comes to publishing topical content.
Keeping it simple in order to match giants of the press
Truth and integrity remain essential in modern journalism. Photo: Shutterstock

For centuries, the British press has been seen as the standard-bearer when it comes to providing quality news on a weekly or daily basis. This long history can be broken up into distinct eras, from the 17th century’s strict government control to the first-ever publication of The Times in 1785; from the tech innovations and tax-lifting of the 19th century to the domination of the press barons in the 1900s; and finally the introduction of tabloid newspapers and the decline in circulation as people moved to new forms of information or entertainment.

Over the years, the rest of the world has tried to keep up with or match the innovations and the high standards of the British press, but even in the United Kingdom the newspapers early on had to make sacrifices and concessions due to outside interests. The rise of advertising in the 1850s and 1860s was a way for the press to reap big profits, and consolidation of papers after the Second World War saw only a handful of figures own the majority of publications. These barons were only interested in expanding their audiences and making money, putting real journalism on the sidelines.

An apparent lowering of quality has only been exacerbated by the rise of the internet and social media, and so-called citizen journalism. Along with that, commercialism rather than exposing truths have taken over newsrooms across the world.

A well-known analysis of daily news media in the UK from the 1980s to 2008 by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies found that even in the most reputable and trusted broadsheets, only 12 per cent of stories were based on material that the reporters had fact-checked and investigated themselves. The research showed that “everyday practices of news judgement, fact-checking, balance, criticising, and interrogating sources that are central to routine journalism” were the exception, not the rule – and not a situation reporters around the world, including in Vietnam, ever wish to mimic.

But Nick Davies, the veteran journalist who wrote a book on the analysis, believed that the problem was a structural one, not the journalists themselves.

Davies explained that under new corporate models, there are fewer journalists but increased workloads. They require time to make contacts, find new stories, and fact-check. Under time pressure, they resort to recycling press releases and wire news, often without fact-checking.

Coming from the UK and spending time working in Vietnamese media after consuming British news for many years, of course the foundational make-up of the press here is vastly different, but many similar issues abound.

For all the faults in the British press, there is still a lot of good to try and match – creating concise stories with an intriguing intro, selecting the correct quotes to give colour to the details, and avoiding repetition and offering opinion in straight news.

And just like in the UK, that is sometimes hard to achieve here knowing how hard the reporters work. Covering stories both online and in print at the same time is not easy – and more so in a language that is not your native one. Reporters want to take pride in their stories, but there are not enough hours in the day anymore to tinker at the edges, especially if that could mean the translation gets lost and only increases confusion between writers and editors.

Just like anything else, learning a craft can depend on the education you receive first, or on the job. I was lucky to have studied journalism in my native Scotland, a country famed for its historic universities. The course was modern and traditional at the same time – letting the students in on the old ways of the British press, and helping us learn how to produce news in a new era.

As well as studying old radio broadcasts and TV news bulletins, and along with reading novels written by famous journalists, we were taught how to film interviews, write long feature articles, and produce everything from a radio show to a glossy magazine.

This physical learning was crucial in understanding how the media works. Without that practical experience, Vietnamese reporters may start off on the back foot unless they get the best support. But that experience may come in time – or, conversely, never be needed as technology snowballs forward and we learn even newer methods to provide content.

Some problems abound that do not really relate to other countries, such as murky and ever-evolving copyright issues compounded by cultural ways of thinking in regards to intellectual property ownership. But as Vietnam pushes forward in its development and integrates ever more with other countries and blocs, such issues may naturally be ironed out over time.

So even though the British press, for example, has had its fair share of ups and downs over the centuries, it is definitely an area that can provide examples of how to do many things the right way. Every country has to deal with political pressures, or time pressures, or labour pressures. All we can do as content providers is try our absolute best in the time afforded to offer correct information. We cannot rely on others to have done the work for us.

We must cover our backs, attempt to offer sound judgement, question our own work, and check everything we put forward for the readers. That is the very least they ask of us.

By Ray McRobbie

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