Monday, 14 October 2013

Sex, lies and audio-tapes: From journalism school to press regulation...

I'm heading out shortly to talk to a guy I already interviewed last week.  This time I intend to do the whole audio interview with the 'record' function set to 'on'.

'Devastated' might loosely describe my reaction when I got home on Thursday to discover that all bar one second of my conversation with the head of Cotham school had not in fact registered on the recording equipment.

It's been a bit of week for mistakes.  To help with making the ends meet/paying the rent, I am currently working part-time behind a bar.  Last night the takings were £75.00 down.  We hunted high and low.  I refused to go home till the situation was resolved.  Imagine my horror when I discovered it was due to my 'careful' - and forgotten - placement of a float in a tidied away corner that was causing all the chaos.  I'll confess to a mixed reaction when I found the bags of coins and notes.  Firstly, relief, the problem was solved.  Secondly, utter embarrassment at my mistake.

Fortunately you can't die of embarrassment.  The only wound is to your pride.

I've been thinking a lot about errors and mistakes in light of the Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent all-party agreement reached last week on the draft Royal Charter, which will go on to form the basis of a system of press regulation in the UK.

As part of my masters in Journalism we have been looking at Media, Law and Ethics.  Last week we had to put together our own charter in class.  We came up with a lot of stuff that could be boiled down into something like; 'we should behave like responsible human beings who act both humanely and within the law'.

We fluffed it up with some specifics about being accurate in our reporting and balanced in the arguments we presented.  We talked about being 'professional' and one girl in the class suggested there should be a ruling that says we should support and encourage ethical behaviour in our colleagues.  We're a nice bunch of people.  You wouldn't have expected anything else from us really.

The two mistakes I've mentioned in the past week could be put down to all sorts of things but in reality they simply come down to being human and therefore fallible.

Ethically however I could've made some very different choices - I could have, for example, got my boyfriend to pretend to be the headmaster in a mock up version of the interview (it was an audio assignment for class after all, who would know?).  I could have placed the freshly discovered money somewhere else so that it looked as though the cock up belonged to someone else.

I didn't, quite simply, because to do so would've been WRONG.  And I don't need a ten point code to tell me that either of those actions would be wrong, I just know.

So what on earth happens to all these nice, well-intentioned people when they leave 'journalism school' and hit the industry?

In another module, Multimedia Journalism, we are learning about all sorts of interesting tech to help us record and edit stories for radio broadcast.  A couple of weeks ago our lecturer played us an audio clip of a relatively dull phone interview about Morris dancers.  To a person I think we all thought - "ooooh, that clip would be better with the sound of some jangly Morris dancers in the background".  We even ventured to find out if using a bit of canned audio for that would be acceptable?  No, not really, was the response.  And really, really, I think we knew that.  But you can see how the simple 'sexing up' of quite an innocent report is only a hop, skip and playground jump to the deadly league of editing for effect rather than editing for accuracy.

Some of it boils down to the lack of clarity about what the purpose of a journalist is I suspect.  We are there to report, to provide factual information that is in the public interest. We're also there to do so in an engaging and potentially even entertaining way.

At the University of the West of England the MA Journalism course is situated within the School of Creative Industries.

This is probably because we have to use all the funky packages that creative types do to make our stories and programmes.  And of course because that's what we're doing, we're telling stories. Truthfully, or as close to that nirvana as you can get hopefully, but stories nonetheless.

In my high-minded idealistic way of looking at the world, I think that as journalists we're here to ask questions that otherwise might go unasked and unanswered, especially of people in authority and those who have financial and/or political control.  We're also here to give voice to the people whose stories might otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by dint of their position in society.

My summary seems somehow to fall short of the mark, to languish in miserable puddles of naivety and inexactitude.  It goes nowhere near figuring out what the problem is within the industry that has caused so much pain and needs so much discussion around the idea of regulation (let alone around the implementation of regulation itself).  The best I can do at this stage is hope that whilst as a group we strengthen in our ability to the job outlined above, my MA cohort and I don't harden to do so in a way that would horrify our current student selves and go against our inherent sense of what is right.  Only time will tell....

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