Reality Will Provide: The Four Cs Of Journalism

Dave Marash, a proud possessor of a press card for the last fifty-one years, came to speak yesterday at the MA in Journalism speaker series at NUI Galway. The talk was comprehensive and wide reaching. But underlying every comment and observation was Dave’s belief in the truth, and our search for the truth as journalists, scientists, artists, and as ordinary citizens filled with curiosity for the world around as a fundamental force for good.

We excerpted a section from Dave’s talk and he has very kindly rounded it out into a mini-essay for us:

I’ve tried, for the convenience of students (and myself) to boil down ‘The Standards for Journalism’ to a simply-grasped formula: the 4 Cs: These are Correctness, Context, Clarity and Communication.

Correctness means getting it right. As the great ancestor of all of us journalists, Dr. Samuel Johnson put it: a story is of absolutely no value unless it be true. Hence, always be sure that what you think you see is what you did see. That what you think you know is in fact accurate. And, of course, the way to do that is to ask another question. And with every answer that you get, that seems to make sense to you, reality test it with the next person you question. “I’ve been told thus and so, do you agree?”, ad infinitum (or at least until deadline). The principle here is, everything you think you know, test it again, test it again, test it again.

Not for nothing has it always been a basic rule of reporting that nothing exists unless it is verified by a second source (and better if verified by three, four, many sources). The new information universe of billions of single voices is the antithesis of this. The greatness of the interactivity of the ever-more-sophisticated Internet is the wealth of information that it provides. The problem is that it disables almost every way to identify the source, much less verify the accuracy of information. This is why citizen journalism, which is a brilliant addition to the information universe, especially in areas where the “legacy media” have a history of state control or reporter-corruption, is neither the same as, nor a substitute for honorable journalism in the “Old Media”.

The thing about the Old Media and what distinguishes them from the single practitioner is that they have a greater range, because they have much greater resources. They can put one, twelve, twenty-five people on the story, if a story is complex and confusing. And they can afford not to blurt it out day by day. No, they refine and digest what they know and only when they think they finally understand it, do they publish or broadcast.

Because they are institutions, they have the budget to buy time, people, and when they function, journalistic results. But equally important, they are accountable: they have recognizable names, addresses and public identities staked to their credibility. If the New York Times gets a story wrong, it can be punished. But if someone with a cellphone and a masked identity has photoshopped a picture, or misdescribed what the picture seems to show – who’s to be held responsible, or even more basically, who’s to know?

This is a very important limitation of the world of citizen journalism.

Stories are more than what’s happening. Almost everything in the present tense has roots in the past, and aims at some goal in the future. This is Context. To understand the reality of a story, one must know its antecedents, its alternatives, its likely consequences. Interrogations about what’s in front of the reporter must also include questions about what’s behind the statement or event, and where the speaker or the perpetrator thinks he or she’s going. And again, single answers rarely suffice, and even tentative judgments must be repeatedly re-tested.

When we speak of technique, we speak of Clarity and Communication. Journalism is a communications medium. It’s no good if you know all but your consumers don’t get it. So your work must be clear. Your language must be colloquial, ordinary, everyday usage. Your sentences should be short, simple and direct.

If you have to deal with ambiguity or complexity, break the grand thought into its components, and spell it out in a series of short sentences. “On the one hand this. On the other hand that.” With a full stop in between. Makes it so much more digestible. Makes it so much more accessible.

So Clarity is the obvious bold-faced point in the standard of journalism.

Which brings us finally to Communication, and by Communication I mean penetration. Did reality as you proposed it really sink in? Will the story stay with the consumer until tomorrow. We all see and hear news broadcasts many times a day. I, myself am particularly “teflonized” against weather forecasting. Even when I want to know the weather, my brain will not engage. I hear it, but then, a minute later it’s like, “Oh, what did they say?”

In news, if your audience has to ask the “What did they say?” question, it doesn’t matter how clearly you stated it and how well you researched it and how accurately you reported it. Journalism forgotten is nullified. So the effect of communication must be sustained. Make sure that you frame a story, not just in clear language but memorable language. The picture or portrait you paint must be vivid. The argument you make must be not just logical, fair-minded and accurate, but accessible, engaging, enduring.

That’s Communication, and Communication like everything in life lives in time. If your Communications have too short a half-life they might as well never have lived.

An addendum: Our lives, like our stories and their subjects exist in time. Time is the essence of reality. Time is the essence of our lives. Time is the original zero-sum game. We all only have so much of it. And everything we do with our time preempts doing something else. The seduction of the Internet, and I am a guy who spends four to six hours almost every day in front of my computer screen, takes me away from something else. Generally speaking, time spent in virtual reality is time not spent in real reality. We are in danger of developing a generation that knows a lot virtually but has very little real experience. Whose virtual concepts never really get tested in real life. So a lot of bad concepts survive long after a genuine encounter with reality would have knocked them out. Time has become the critical issue for me in journalism.

Reporting complex reality takes time. Telling truths about reality takes time. Absorbing the products of journalism takes time. In the world of 24-hour news, rolling deadlines, instant analysis, the missing ingredient is time, and the missing outcomes are truth and understanding. This is true of the journalism produced by reporters who have barely landed in a place before they are rushed in front of a camera or microphone or keyboard. This is true of the reports which purport to inform in a minute or two. And most alarmingly, this is true of video reports in which the tempo of editing prevents any frame from being left before a viewer for enough time for it to be truly mined for information. These days, we rarely get truly to see any frame, much less to discern its many zones or levels of sigificance and action. And the frames themselves are not selected for what they can reveal, but for what they can proclaim in a rapid montage. Thus instead of images full of information, we are fed a string of images which are iconic, which is to say generic, and are good only for leading the viewer to a conclusion, absent of any evidence to support it.

In other words, the rapid fire of pre-digested images invites, permits no interactivity on the part of the viewer. Not for you at home to question a story and examine its elements. This sort of journalism, and the accompanying or pre-empting contributions of “experts” enforce passivity on the audience. They can accept or reject the arguments, but usually only on the basis of competitive rhetoric and not considered information.

There is a word for what’s happening to today’s journalism: I believe that word is “auto-lobotomy.” And I believe the prevention and the cure are Correctness, Context, Clarity, and Communication.

One thought on “Reality Will Provide: The Four Cs Of Journalism

  1. Agreed. Many journalists tend to write before they think with the notion that getting there first is the goal instead of informing the public. I have been guilty of ‘churnalism’ myself – reduced budgets and staff numbers, and the pressure for the ‘legacy media’ to survive can put a huge squeeze on the most dedicated journalist but you’re right – we must all remember or re-learn the four Cs.


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