The Journalist in the World

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Above: The T&T Guardian for April 19, 2018

BitDepth#1142 for April 26, 2018

Many years ago, a friend explained the economics of the smash and grab to me after seeing a dollar on the passenger seat of my car.

“Don’t leave that there,” he warned.

I was puzzled. It was just a dollar, after all.

“Listen,” he said patiently, “the cost of a big stone is zero. The cost to buss your windshield is zero. The reward is a dollar. The math is not in your favour.”

Refreshing our calculations is something that all journalists should be doing.

The old math, which granted us automatic authority by being the people producing news no longer adds up.

The newsroom of the past was a bulwark against the outside world. There were security guards, lawyers on retainer and the comfort of a corporate presence that understood the challenges and risks of honest, forthright journalism.

The newsrooms of the future will likely be populated by contract workers who file their stories from far-flung locations with a responsibility to watch their own backs while undertaking some of the liabilities of their publishers, a disturbing but prevalent trend for new journalist’s contract terms.

The assumption that a byline granted immunity from all but the most pointed of letters to the editor has been unceremoniously annihilated.

The power of the press, as embodied by Mark Twain’s quote, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” has been upended in less than a decade.

Journalism is now one facet of a wider community of comment, sharing, review and yes, reporting, that has been lubricated by platforms of engagement where the cost of participating is zero.

The fuss about the Guardian’s recent reporting comes at an interesting time for me.

I’ve just finished Brian Krebs’ Spam Nation, which reports authoritatively on the phenomenon of pharma spam, a business that earns millions, but costs billions to block and disable.

I’m just starting Conspiracy, by Ryan Holiday, about the expensive war waged by tech investor Peter Thiel after he was outed as gay by Nic Denton’s Valleywag, one of the websites in the shuttered Gawker online publishing empire.

The T&T Guardian for April 18, 2018

Thiel had the money to spend to seek revenge for an act he considered pointless and unfair, but almost anyone interested in current affairs now realises that they have another weapon, free access to online mediums and in many cases, the time to wage unfettered, unceasing and often unthinking war on journalists they disagree with.

The response to the Guardian’s publication last week of photographs of Michele-Lee Ahye revealed an open secret, her relationship with an attractive partner who happened to share her gender.

It appeared just a few days after vehement comments surfaced on social media channels condemning Justice Devindra Rampersad’s landmark decision to strike down Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act as a precursor of divine retribution, and provoked an equally fierce response on the Guardian’s routine front page promo post on social media.

Within hours, close to a thousand people, and not just the usual social justice faces by any means, had weighed in on the treatment of the matter, virtually all attacking the paper for their front page.

The words that were used, their phrasing and the rawness of the responses spoke to something other than mere offence.

The prevailing tone was angry disappointment.

A disappointment one suspects that was compounded by their February 06 headline, just two months before, when their front page trumpeted a rejoinder by the new President-Elect, “I’m not a lesbian.”

In Conspiracy, I’d discovered the term scandalum magnatum, a retired law that defended the peerage in the UK from casual slurs and debasement.

After that law was struck, the term appears to have stuck around as a way to describe needless attacks on greatness and that seemed to snugly fit the events of last week.

At the turn of the century, I was stricken with irritable bowel syndrome, which I discovered had joined stabbing migraines as another symptom of my physical response to the stresses of corporate life.

I could munch Ibuprofen for the headaches, but IBS was a different matter. This is a condition that leaves you unable to trust yourself to break wind which puts a whole different cast on a headline like ‘Smear Factor.’

Eventually, I would pursue the cure for both conditions, leaving full-time employment entirely in 2005.

I considered this, and how I might have felt if it were generally known, in the random way that one thought skips to another while looking at a physical copy of the Guardian front page for April 17.

Nothing’s wrong with Michele-Lee Ahye or a relationship between adults based on affection, as evidenced by the published photos, so what was really happening here?

The Guardian returned to the story the following day, writing about the response with a verbal ten-foot pole and then finally caved in with a front page, above-the-fold apology on the third day.

The T&T Guardian for February 06, 2018

On its face, the three-day storm was a reporting and framing misstep. Two decades ago it would have been accepted differently. But this isn’t 20 years ago, or even ten.

The Guardian’s mistake with the Ahye report wasn’t in publishing it, it was in misunderstanding what its role was in sharing the information and the reactions made that clear.

The vigorous jousting that shook the Guardian shouldn’t be a cause for finger pointing by its peers, but it needs to be a signal for introspection for journalists working in a world that’s at once much larger and much smaller than it used to be.

In the Guardian’s newsroom in Chaguanas, there’s a large banner that reads, “Get to the Heart.” It’s a reprint from their recent rebranding campaign. It seems appropriate to wonder how their aim slipped so low, so obviously, in this instance.

When I began contributing to newsrooms in 1976, it was still a space where reporters, almost entirely male, showed up for work in a suit. That was changing, but a patrician old guard was still around, casting a glowering, bluntly disapproving eye on the hip new youths who thought they now owned these hallowed desks.

By comparison, today’s newsrooms have few deeply experienced journalists left. Who steps in to cross-examine the page proofs from the perspective of hard experience, to see the finished page and stories from the point of view of an almost infinitely diverse readership?

To operate a newroom or design a career as a journalist that does not acknowledge that reality in 2018 is to not only be out of sync with demonstrable reality, it is to court a response that can rise like a sudden tsunami from apparent calm.

The journalist working in today’s world must have a perspective and an opinion in shaping reporting. Facts are readily gathered, given time, by almost anyone today.

The degree of understanding and explication that is brought to the reporting is what elevates one story above another and drives sensible discussion and mature outcomes.

The journalist must bring context, contrast, perspective and colour to blunt, often bland facts. That’s what consumers of the product increasingly expect and when that doesn’t happen, the first thing that’s lost is confidence. Everything else falls away after that.

Journalists have always been enjoined by the spirit of their profession to consider carefully the value of their reporting to their audience.

It should be apparent now that it’s no longer clear who’s holding the stone or which side of the glass we stand on.