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If people don’t want journalism, we have no right to make them have it

I’ve been partially watching, partially taking part in a debate on Twitter over the future of news (what else?). It began with a tweet from John Robinson:

Tired of the media obsession with Tiger? Me too. Yet people are fascinated with it. Serve the audience or ignore ‘em & move on?”

I’m bored of Tiger too, so amen to that. Then it got interesting, as my blogging friend Mathew Ingram added his perspective:

that’s the eternal debate — give people what they want to read about, or give them what you think is important?”

Jordan Furlong added this:

It’s not a debate: you give people what they need. That’s journalism. Giving them what they want is entertainment.”

Mathew responded:

so giving people what they need is journalism — how do we know what they need?”

From my perspective, deciding what people need is simple: They tell you what they need through the merry actions of the free market. There are other ways of deciding of course, but the only other valid one is “one person, one vote” – otherwise known as democracy. And that tends not to work well for deciding what should be lead story on page six.

Mathew’s response was to differentiate between “need” and “want”:

I disagree when it comes to news – I think more people would pay for news they want (gossip) than news they need (reporting)”

And that, I think, is where the real problems start. Once you start to divide things into “what people want”  and “what people need”, you end up in a kind of paternalism, where you decide as a journalist what people should be reading. Jordan actually summed up this perspective on what journalism should be in another of his tweets:

Journalism is exercise of judgment on deliverables for civic literacy. Not a market need; it’s an enabler of effective citizenship”

If ever there was a description of how to suck the life, soul and fun out of journalism, that is it. It moves journalism out of the real world and makes it into something like a branch of the civil service, spooning out “the truth” into ears that don’t really want to listen. It basically says “people don’t want to buy it, so we’ll give it to them whether they want it or not. They’ll be grateful!”

Would you read a newspaper that was all about “civil literacy”? I’m interested in politics and society, but even I would avoid something like that like the plague. This is a form of puritan reductionism for publishing, dividing the world neatly into “things people want” and “things people don’t want but need to hear, so by God we’ll sit them in Church on Sundays and read it all out to them. They need it.” It treats readers as children, who need to be spoonfed their medicine because it’s good for them, but don’t understand why they need it.

The fact is that the best journalism has always been about entertainment as much as information, because entertainment is story telling, and story telling is about provoking an emotional response – and that’s the first, best way to help people understand and engage with the world. John Pilger’s reports from Cambodia were incredibly good journalism not only because of the facts he uncovered, but because of the tools that he used to provoke emotional engagement. He told the story.

Yes, sometimes people don’t know what they want until they hear it. If your idea of deciding what should be in newspapers is just “whatever the readers say they want in a focus group”, you’re in the wrong business.

But if you treat journalism as some kind of “enabler of effective citizenship” you will never produce stories which are compelling, interesting, provoke real emotion – and yes, which entertain too.

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  • Jordan Furlong

    Ian, thanks for your thoughts in this subject — it’s not easy to have a conversation like the one Mathew and I fell into 140 characters at a time, so I’ll try setting out my perspective in some more detail here.

    My concern is that asking whether journalism should deliver what people want vs what they need is the most direct route towards reducing journalism to irrelevance. Journalism is important precisely because it digs into things that have greater importance than most people care to attach to them. Most people don’t care that much about corporate or government abuses of power, or about the impact tomorrow of billions of dollars borrowed and spent today — they don’t perceive that it affects their lives, or they’re made uncomfortable by the subject matter, or they don’t want their existing beliefs challenged. What people want is to be comforted and entertained, and they’ve been asking their news organizations to do that for quite some time.

    A lot of journalists have apparently decided they’re OK with that. But when you let the “merry actions of the free market” decide what’s news and what isn’t, you end up with what we saw yesterday: a troop surge of 30,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan getting less coverage and analysis than a golfer’s extramarital affairs. And this sort of thing has been going on for years.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m a free-market proponent in most regards, and I hardly want to see the state get into the news business. But journalism is a hybrid beast: it’s a major social good, but it’s one of the very few (maybe the only?) that’s provided by the private sector. Its function and benefits are universal, but it’s a captive of the market, which is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to fund properly. But long before the Net wrecked the current model, news was in decline — for years now, the choice and presentation of “news” has been driven primarily (and in some cases exclusively) by a desire to generate revenue, and that’s not what news is for.

    We need a responsible, independent, functioning press in order to capably and effectively play our role as citizens. Nothing in that statement implies spoonfed pablum or paternalism; it’s a fact of civic life that I hear many journalists regularly invoke as their raison d’etre. Nor is there anything in that statement that says important stories can’t be well-told — of course they can, and they should be. That’s why journalism still prizes writing ability so highly, and why we don’t just go out and hire auditors and forensic accountants to serve as reporters.

    We need news that sifts truth out of the endless skeins of deception, spin and trivia, and makes it available to everyone who’s interested. Maybe no one’s interested — maybe all we care about really is Tiger Woods and Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert. Fine — we can take that up with the civics teachers in school, if we can find them. But even if the market for important, necessary news is small, we still need to serve it as best we can. That’s really all I’m trying to say.

    Thanks again for taking the conversation forward.

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