Polis 2014

A couple of Fridays ago I went to the the Polis Journalism Conference at the LSE; Polis is the university’s ‘media think tank’. I should have written this while the proceedings were fresher in my mind, but I still want to record a couple of points about the proceedings I saw. On balance the content of the day was very good, and I particularly enjoyed Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewing Ian Katz. The coffee queue was too long, and there wasn’t enough lunch – #conferencelife if you will.

One of the sessions that raised a question for me was a panel discussion on ‘the future of transparency journalism’ with Eric Newton, George Brock, Richard Sambrook and Angela Phillips – all journalists now working in universities or equivalent institutions – and chaired by Richard Gizbert who presents The Listening Post on Al Jazeera. While there was a lot of worthy discussion on the question of transparency, particularly as enabled by new methods (using social media, data journalism), I felt strongly that what was missing was any recognition of the sometimes murky world of editorial decision-making and the news agenda.

Why do some things make the news and not others? It’s not always obvious for the consumers of journalism, and I would make the point strongly with the example of Flight MH370. Over the weekend just gone there have finally been some developments to the story, but until then the reporting had been far from illuminating. Indeed, it wasn’t clear – and despite huge media interest and journalism hours spent on the story – what on earth was going on, above and beyond the basic message that lots of people were still searching for a plane. Journalists like to think of themselves as credible sources of information, yet a great deal of the coverage dealt in misinformation and rumour, undermining the claims made by news outlets as to their own trustworthiness. Quite frankly it was like a drunk stumbling back to the bar for another pint of ‘no new news’. Why, then, did this story lead bulletins for nigh on two weeks solid? What are the viewers meant to think, and where is the transparency in that?

For me, one of the issues at hand is the under-acknowledged status of the news as a product which is created, mediated and consumed – it doesn’t exist outside of the structures of its production – and yet is presented as a transparent record of what’s going on in the world. As someone I know put it, we might like to think of it as ‘some news’ rather than ‘the news’. Given the gravity with which most news broadcasts present themselves, it’s sometimes easy to forget that someone, somewhere is making decisions about what you watch and listen to on the evening news. For the audience sitting at home, wondering why, despite no apparent development in the MH370 story, it continued to be the most important news around, the answer is ‘someone thought you would like it’… and nobody’s unearthed anything more interesting! Of course, I’m not denying the intrigue surrounding MH370 – it’s compelling – but the coverage has raised questions about transparency, for me at least.

Another, shorter point to make – lots of references were made at the conference to data journalism. Apart from the Guardian data blog, I’m not aware that data journalism is making huge inroads at the moment (though I don’t wish to downplay the significant potential, particularly given the rise of open data, or my own significant ignorance). Indeed, probably the biggest story of the last year emerged from a very traditional source – a whistleblower leaking documents. Having worked with data in a limited capacity in the past, I’m keenly aware that, as well as pushing boundaries in terms of newsgathering, data journalism must tell good stories too. Some of the discussion felt a bit like your elderly relatives trying to sound relevant.