Poynter had an interesting post earlier this week on a study about errors in news reports. The researchers looked at 2,000 stories in the Swiss and Italian press, and contacted people quoted in those stories.
Their findings make for sobering reading. Not enough Italian sources responded to provide meaningful results, but the Swiss respondents reported factual errors - from spelling mistakes to being misquoted - in 60% of stories, and 'soft' errors of interpretation like sensationalising, or missing "essential information", in 55%.
It's far from a perfect measure of inaccuracy: incorrect headlines were the most common factual error, but that doesn't distinguish between the outright false and the merely simplistic, while people might not remember exactly what they said to a journalist then later claim to have been misquoted. But it does tally with similar research in the USA. (As far as I know no-one's attempted this analysis for the UK press - one for Leveson, perhaps?)
It wasn't just the content that was interesting, however: the study was published in an academic journal, not an area often mined by media reporters. By chance, I've also just finished reading Jeremy Vine's (excellent) memoirs in which he spends a chapter wondering aloud what news is. This is a question that's interested media sociologists for more than five decades, and there's a sizeable body of literature on the criteria journalists use to select a story as worth publishing - but Vine instead thinks it through on his own.
That's not to criticise Vine too much - an entertaining, informative account of his career at the BBC probably isn't the place to bring in Galtung and Ruge's classic study of the news values in foreign news reporting. But why are journalists, as academic study after academic study ruefully points out, so suspicious of research about journalism?
The first, most obvious reason is that anyone would be wary of an outsider coming in and telling them what they're actually doing, or what they're doing wrong, or what they should be doing instead. And journalists, who are liable to be criticised at the best of times, are just more likely to be defensive.
It also hardly helps that some of the best-known studies, from the work of the Glasgow University Media Group to Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, have focused on how journalists transmit the ideas of an elite group. This is, slightly unfortunately, called a Marxist perspective (Herman and Chomsky even more provocatively developed what they call a 'propaganda model'), and runs so counter to journalists' own ideas of their work that it's dismissed out of hand. Other studies, highlighting how news journalism requires decisions, have been given titles that imply they think journalists deliberately pick and choose what makes, or worse invent, news: Deciding What's News; Manufacturing Consent; Making the News; Putting Reality Together. Academic research on journalism has a serious PR problem.
Another reason could be that journalism research just isn't part of journalists' working life. The dullest biologist can be called upon to explain a new virus; the most self-obsessed historian to discuss foreign policy; the nerdiest political geek to analyse the latest poll. Yet when it comes to their own profession, journalists rely upon current or former journalists ('media commentators'), or at the best a journalist-turned-academic - 'one of us' despite their new hifalutin status.
There are exceptions: the research in Nick Davies's Flat Earth News which infamously found only 12% of news was based solely on original work was conducted by a team from Cardiff University, while sociologist Michael Schudson has teamed up with Leonard Downie Jr of the Washington Post. But generally, journalists see academics who study journalism as a harmless batty old aunt who might occasionally have moments of lucidity but is mostly best left to babble incoherently and irrelevantly in the attic.
What might academia, with its ivory towers and bearded shut-ins, be able to offer journalism? Empirical research on accuracy, trust, and news content, for a start, and more thoughtful analyses of journalism's place in society, which might help take us away from 'truth and justice' fantasies or 'lying hack scum' folk demons. I'm biased here, as I try to straddle the divide between PhD student and journalist, but as journalism staggers through its current immense upheavals of funding, culture and ethics, maybe a bit of collaboration could help to prevent it from completely falling over.
Just as news reports shouldn't be accepted unquestioningly, nor should academic articles: in a brilliantly ironic move, the researchers in the accuracy study credit the Guardian for uncovering the expenses scandal. But it's the sort of research that could actually benefit journalism - if journalists are willing to take it on board.
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