My Second Birmingham Post Column

Ok, so this is something I’ve never done before (and it may get me in trouble).

Below is a copy of the (unsubbed) version of my column that will go into The Birmingham Post tomorrow.

I wanted to put it here so that people could add comments to it and I could link to it in Del.icio.us before the article was published.

As was pointed out to me, 600 words is never enough, and there is a lot I’ve missed out. So please help me add to it!

There is something I want to share with you. Something that I don’t think a lot of people know:

Journalists are people too.

They are. Honest!

But I doubt you’ll believe me. I am, after all, a journalist.

As a collective body, we seem to be ranked in the public consciousness as something akin to pond life… except a little less trustworthy.

There are numerous surveys placing journalists amongst the ranks of used-car salesmen, estate agents and, heavens forfend, politicians when it comes to trust.

Yet there are many that joined journalism because they wanted to be the trusted, responsible champion of the people.

So what makes people so convinced that, at the drop of a hat, us reporters are willing to lie, cheat and sell our grandmothers for a story?

A straw poll of contacts and friends on micro-blogging service Twitter (an interesting platform that I will delve into more on in a future column) offered up a few explanations:

  • Because some of them are plain untrustworthy – remember Hillsborough and Viglen?”

  • Most who’ve had an article written about them can see how many mistakes get made.”

  • Because when you have a 600 word limit something always gets left out.”

  • Lack of accountability.”

  • Tabloid digging into private lives.”

These show, collectively, we journalists have a long way to go before we are considered even as trustworthy as the ordinary man on the street.

But it is the man on the street that journalists have to worry about in the shiny new world of digital media.

In March, I was lucky enough to be part of a small team of young, West Midland “media types” sent to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, by Advantage West Midlands-funded project Digital Central.

The conference, which originally started as a music festival, is fast becoming known as a premier event attracting the top international talent in digital media.

My fellow attendees were all “early adopters”. Whether they be housewives, techies or students, they are the ones surfing the crest of the digital wave, the first to adopt all the new and shiny tools and applications that the web has to offer.

Many of them write blogs or produce their own videos, but what shocked me was the ability of some of them to command audiences in the thousands or tens of thousands.

When I asked them how they did it, the answer was pretty uniform: They were trusted and they were “part of a conversation”.

This conversation may be had through blogs, video or audio podcasts, but the fundamental idea is that their audience has redress and can correct and build upon the original work.

By opening up in this way, and by acknowledging their readers as real people, they show themselves to real too – something journalists have avoided in the pursuit of an ideal of objectivity, or a belief that their opinions and writing should command authority.

But these digital pioneers shaping a future for online media are demonstrating that, above all, trust is where it’s at.

The old model of distance between journalist and reader is going to have to change.

It is something The Birmingham Post has been investigating over recent months with the launch of its blogs, its experimentation with social bookmarking service Del.icio.us and Twitter.

By realising that they are just one – hopefully well-researched, well-written and interesting – part of a bigger conversation, journalists have a chance of raising themselves out of the pond and – hopefully – becoming seen as the trusted champions they really should be.

To see some of the websites that helped to inform this column or to respond, please visit http://del.icio.us/joannageary/column2

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8 Responses to “My Second Birmingham Post Column”


  1. 1 Paul nicholls - posted on an iPod Touch May 7, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Nice insight Joanna.

    I think people who do ‘get’ social media and have experience of reading blogs understand the author much more than traditional print. The dawning new age of interactivity does carry an element of trust, after all if I take the time to follow a blog, I buy into it.

    Evolution will have an effect in pond life you know…

  2. 2 Clare-Marie White May 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    hm. it’s an interesting piece. What I’d add in more than 600 words is how use of technology in itself makes journalists more trustworthy? As journalists are under more and more pressure to process more information coming at us, where does the resourcing come from that make it worthwhile printing on paper as opposed to being another blogger, albeit hopefully a good one? Plus, what does technology & social networking offer to those old-fashioned people who just want their newspapers to be right and informative?

    Now that I’m sort of sitting on another side of the fence and sometimes talking to reporters from mainstream news organisations I have one idea – reporters could just get out more and be a bit more imaginative with people. Some of them just sound like they’re calling you from a callcentre, ploughing through their tenth story of the afternoon, which probably isn’t that far from the truth – but it doesn’t do that much to help relationships if they make it pretty clear that they’ve already written the story and are just calling you to get some bland quote.

    But don’t mind my ranting, I’m just jealous you got to go to SXSW 🙂

  3. 3 dp May 8, 2008 at 12:31 am

    Hi Joanna,

    You want comments *here*?

    I have several thoughts upon reading this – too long to detail here. The story makes several salient points, but I feel it needs a question, or possibly a shift in focus. At the end of the story I’m left thinking that your mission to raise the status of journalism is a different project than the engagement with Web2.0. I think I’d tackle one or the other, not both. I’d deconstruct the story in other ways too, but that’s where it gets long-winded.

    HTH

  4. 4 joannageary May 8, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Claire, Paul, dp – thanks for your comments.

    I think, reading this through today, the column is a good example of how restricted time and word-count do not a good opinion piece make.

    There is a lot missing and, in true Jo style, I shall probably spend the rest of the day mentally beating myself up for a less-than-rigorous attempt at conveying an important issue. You are, after all, only as good as your last story.

    I agree with Claire that social media is only one tool allowing journalists to get closer to their readers. Going out to meet them is another, but the reality in many newspapers is that this just isn’t happening as much as it should. I suspect that has got a lot to do with staffing levels and workload.

    So, being realistic, web 2.0 may end up being a significant tool in the process of putting reporters back in touch with readers – a reminder that there are living, breathing people engaging with their work. I’ve watched other journalists here react to comments on blog posts or on Twitter and you can see that for many it re-invigorates them – it is a positive experience.

    And we have to get back in touch with readers because if we continue to be faceless they are more likely to go search for conversations, information and enegagement elsewhere, with someone they feel they recognise and trust.

    In the Ipsos MORI survey, over 60 per cent of people said they trusted TV presenters to tell the truth. Why? I imagine because they can see the person and, as a result feel more connected to them – even if they never meet them. Perhaps that’s something newspaper journalism can learn from.

  5. 5 Ewan Spence May 8, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Two points… the second on human nature and trust, but the first is ironic – the lack of comment facility at the Birmingham Post. Second is on the trust issue, but around audio and podcasting. I find it unusual that more people trust audio (and therefore Radio news) to be unedited and massaged, than TV, where they expect to see edits and cuts. So even when the same story comes out, people trust it more on radio. Why?

    I don;t have an answer on that one either, but it should be noted that the delivery mechanism must play a part. TV is less trustworthy than radio. Where would print journalism rank on that scale? Do people see the ‘must sell papers’ as making the stories less about truth and trust than as shifting paper and earning money?

  6. 6 Linda May 12, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Hi Joanna,

    I think print journalists who want to engage with people, who want to have a conversation with people, who respect and value other opinions can find great benefits in all this interactive malarkey.

    If they can take their ‘people skills’ online then great.

    But it makes my heart sink sometimes when I see online efforts resembling more like some private boys’ club – all intellectual snobbery and cliques based on what technology people favour – and insults fly at those who disagree or ‘joined the party’ too late.

    It upsets me when I see ‘trusted’ commentators bemoaning the fact that a given “conversation” is over – who says?

    Or they only engage in conversation with those they deem “worth” responding to – on the one hand of course that’s entirely understandable – don’t we all, in ‘real life’?

    But comments left unsanswered can do a lot of damage imho – especially when the journalists/bloggers have ‘moved on’ to talk about yet another ‘social media tool’ or whatever – who are they really talking to? Who’s really interested?

    I have a blog about twins and triplets etc, at http://www.gotyourhandsfull.com and have now been joined by another mum, in the US, we have had some fantastic feedback and have built up (touch wood) an enthusiastic and loyal readership with minimum (okay no) resources – I think part of the reason this has happened is because we have had the confidence to be ourselves while still writing about stuff that matters to families, rather than writing about some esoteric nonsense or blathering on (too much) about personal stuff.

    I’m just mentioning this as I think it underlines your point that journalists are people too, and as a means of getting people’s trust and getting their permission to tell their stories, it has worked great. I have been able to sell features off the back of the blog, I have been able to post stories I’ve already worked on and I’ve been able to post stories considered too ‘specialist’ by the magazines I have written for.

    best wishes

  7. 7 Chris May 14, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Mistrust by the public is not exclusive to journalists. You could substitute many public servants for journalists in your article and it would still ring true.

    If I engage in debate with somebody, I want to be able to argue my point passionately, and to have someone else defend their point of view with equal vigour. But it is the interaction that makes such an encounter truly worthwhile.

    As a journalist I imagine that it must be difficult to find the balance between writing a piece expressing personal views that you may hold very strongly (and that would probably make for more interesting reading) and being entirely balanced and dispassionate. If you do the former it is so much the better if there is opportuniy for comment and reply.

    I greatly admire your committment to connecting with your audience. You seem to have found a nice little niche here Jo, so all the very best.

    I will certainly keep reading…

    Chris


  1. 1 links for 2008-05-07 « Joanna Geary Trackback on May 7, 2008 at 11:42 pm

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