#VOJ10: What’s the value of journalism? A debate

Latest in a discussion with Freelance Unbound

In yesterday’s reply, Freelance Unbound said: “Even if trained journalists do tell stories better than ordinary folks, our problem is that the consumers of journalistic output seem not to care very much.” The piece also argued that “those reading journalistic output haven’t got the critical ability to appreciate its worth”.

But there’s an important difference between poor literacy skills and poor communication skills. I have a mate, who introduced me to the joys of horse racing – the sport rather than the betting offshoot – who is by his own admission far too au fait with the detail to provide an understandable explanation to a doofus such as me. He’s tried, but my head’s hurting. Doesn’t that illustrate the contrast between communication and journalism?

It would be difficult to hold the media up as a shining example of grammatical correctness and there’s long been a debate about whether journalism should follow the conventional standards of good English or use language like what it is spoke.

Remember the old observation that ‘reporters don’t have to write, the subs will knock it into shape’? We didn’t bemoan poor core literary skills then, we used particular sets of skills for particular tasks.

I grew up reading the Daily Mirror in the 1970s. It wasn’t a textbook of correct usage, it was an engaging, informative, challenging and – yes – entertaining read. It connected with a mass market not by dumbing down, but by encouraging ambition and constructive criticism. It questioned and it printed stuff some people didn’t want printed and lots of people didn’t want to hear about – until they saw it presented in context and with skill.

We need a similar approach now, one that fits the new media set-up. We’ve got fantastic new ways to communicate faster, to find out more, to interact. Do consumers not care about journalistic skills? I hear plenty of criticism that suggests they might.

Journalism has responded to criticism of its standards by retreating into a bunker, rather than taking on those criticisms and delivering better. I still think there’s room for the principles I mentioned at the beginning, and I think they’re important.

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