Legendary reporter Robert Fisk recently gave a public lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, writes Dave Lee, and offered some very strong personal thoughts on web journalism. Newswire reports:
“Mr Fisk said the internet had led to the erosion of quality writing.
He recalled being challenged about a quote of his that had been published on a website – although he had never said it. “But I read it on the internet,” was the response, to which Mr Fisk simply hung up.
Often “misquoted or requoted” on the internet, he is furious when people cut pieces out of what he has said or written, especially if someone uses ellipsis to indicate something has been cut from a quote, when they have actually culled 380 words.
Gordon Campbell – political editor of Scoop and host of the evening – attempted to defend the internet, taking the microphone off Mr Fisk several times to reassure the audience of the benefits of web journalism.
At one point, Mr Fisk retorted: “To hell with the web, it’s got no responsibility.”
I wonder what his problem is. I have always admired Fisk. He’s an exceptional journalist. But like so many exceptional journalists who have earned their living reporting for newspapers, I don’t think he understands what blogs actually are.
Let me ask you this: Why do we report news? To inform, yes. To educate, yes. To apply a sense of public voice… absolutely. For reporters like Robert Fisk, a blog should make him weak at the knees with excitement. If you read Reesh’s piece in full, you’ll come across this statement:
“British-born Fisk (pictured), a journalist who has lived in the Middle East for 30 years, describes as disgraceful a newspaper cutting off the bottom part of a photo of a man holding his dead daughter. By not showing the bone protruding from her leg, the newspaper got away with the caption: ‘A man carries his wounded daughter.’”
With a blog, he could have posted that picture in full.
In fact, everything Fisk claims is wrong about Middle East reporting would be solved if he posted his work on a blog as well as just in a newspaper.
Fisk’s work achieves the goal of informing and educating whoever reads it. But if we’re looking at ABC figures, that puts it at 235,289 on average per day. That’s a very small percentage of a small country.
I say if we, as journalists, are to really do our job as the world’s mouthpiece, then Fisk needs to embrace the web, before the web consumes him.
By Dave Lee
Dave, surely you jest. You say blogs ought to make writers like Fisk weak in the knees because they can chop up what he says and misquote him? (Employing the ellipsis is similar to what McCain’s group did when they misrepresented Obama’s statement about the smaller nations occupying so much of our time and energy.) That an editor can chop up a photograph to advance his own agenda and not tell the real story? That is nothing more than making a lie out of a truth. Basic Journalism 101 stuff, Dave, otherwise it’s editorializing. Please, Dave, when you’re telling a joke be sure to put one of those smiley faces around the article.
Perhaps the point is that if Fisk was blogging he could a) respond to what was being said and b) people could link to the quote in full – or show up writers who misquote him. Is he really just talking about being misquoted rather than the internet per se?
The real issue is not so much with the tools of blogging and the Internet in general but rather in knowing what is and what isn’t a reliable source. People want trusted resources, so the question becomes how to we identify reliable Site A from unreliable Site B?
I think this is where both traditional media (as editors) and many journalists are missing a trick. By embracing the web for the opportunities it presents Fisk et al could become the trusted resources online as well as off.
Surely it’s better to lead the charge for responsible and accurate online journalism rather than complain from the sidelines.
Fisk is typical of a generation of journalists and editors who still regard the web as an inconvenient intrusion on the formerly cosy world of newspapers, TV and radio they dominated and controlled for a long time.
Late last year, the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in NZ turned up at the annual journalism educators’ conference to talk, among other things, about the way his paper was embracing new media.
It was noted with some amusement that he was unable directly to demonstrate his organisation’s new ways and brought along one of his young staff (who looked all of 20) to work the demo.
Also to our amusement, the thing the editor seemed most taken by was a video of him and his son out fishing on the harbour that had been used on the paper’s website.
One of the same paper’s right wing columnists ranted against the blogosphere for more than a year, then suddenly started his own. The problem is, he writes his blogs as if they were columns.
In May this year, I was at a conference in Bali and heard one of Australia’s best-known journalists, Greg Sheridan from The Australian, rabbiting on about how the web hadn’t really changed anything.
My report at the time read:
“…Sheridan… – perhaps with a bulging cheek – said technology had changed the basics of our profession ‘almost not at all’.
“‘I’m not a tech dinosaur,’ he said (although he claimed later his employer began a blog of his writing without him knowing). ‘But what we do has not changed – we verify facts, tell the truth, and get as much of the truth as we can into the paper or the broadcast.’
“The internet had value as a neutral tool, like the telephone, and it ‘influences the way we do our job – but not the job that we do.’
“He said there was no substitute for being there. No currency should be given to the idea that journalists could do the job without leaving the office. In reporting global issues, the tyranny of facts was more important than ever.
“What he termed ‘pattern-style’ explanations were too easy, and the web had exaggerated the effects of pattern-style explanations. Very good journalism discerned patterns, but these had to emerge from facts that had been verified.”
I wish people like him would actually help make the web better. Indeed, there actually is a lack of classic writing skills online (from spelling to fact checking) and we could do with leading opinion makers like him shaping the web instead of bashing it. Whatever Fisk thinks, the web’s not going to stop and go ooh because of him. And when he and the likes are gone, who’s going to that?
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