Why new media requires old journalism

Journalistic errors, once safely turned into chip wrapper, now live on in online formaldehyde, writes Mark Lawson in The Guardian

Imagine that in 20 years a sports historian, researching previous cricket World Cups, retrieves the pieces written at the time about the 2007 tournament. Almost every article will start with a heavy-hearted paragraph about the futility of blokes hurling leather at wood in the shadow of the murder of Bob Woolmer.

Let’s hope that the electronic librarian in charge of that archive will have added a link to later coverage suggesting that the Pakistan coach in fact died of natural causes. And – because the subject of this piece is the importance of journalistic caution – perhaps also the even later headlines that will assert that perhaps there had been a killer after all.

But the point is that, if Woolmer turns out not to have been murdered, hundreds of thousands of printed words and tens of hours of bulletins and phone-ins will become historically unsafe. The same is true of the swaths of paper, cyberspace and airwaves given over to lamenting a new low in reality television – a Dutch programme in which renal patients compete to win a kidney – which, unfortunately, proved to be a hoax. Equally problematic for posterity are the many moralistic commentaries inspired by allegations about the private life of the newsreader Jon Snow, which were later exposed as inventions.

Present-tense journalism has always been vulnerable to future events – for example, those British newspapers that praised the “firmness” of Germany’s new leader in the 1930s – but the turnarounds currently seem to be happening more regularly and spectacularly, and raise troubling questions. Should the BBC retract the edition of Panorama that stated authoritatively that Woolmer was poisoned, or simply pretend that the show was never broadcast?

Let me be clear that these comments are not intended as holier-than-thou, but rather sinful-as-them. On two occasions, I’ve published columns about famous bands splitting up only for the boys to reunite shortly after the ink was dry. A tirade against Sir Alex Ferguson for being too weak to drop David Beckham lost its power when the manager omitted him. And only a lucky dental appointment saved me from raging furiously across several media about the Dutch kidney show.

My point is that, for all of us, journalism’s use as a historical record is being ruined by a growing impatience with fact. These problems have occurred because of significant changes in both the speed and the durability of journalism. Pace is the greatest danger. The fiery old purists (often Scottish, for some reason) who used to run journalism schools and news desks insisted only on demonstrable fact. Prince Charles should not be called “the future king” because death or a republic might yet make the line a lie. Nor was it safe to say that a president elect “will be inaugurated next 20 January”. He was “scheduled to be”.

But those lessons were taught at a time when little more was reported about legal suspects than their age, gender and homeplace. Now the “23-year-old man from Swindon” will be profiled over four pages with choice snaps from his Facebook entry. News, in the competitive environment created by multi-channel and online, has become slicker and quicker, and the verbs of uncertainty are ugly and distracting: a result that “is expected” is slimmed to the whizzier “will”, while “possible” has become impossible. The celebrated legal qualifier “alleged” is kept in place by periodic stern glances from the attorney general, but is frequently pinned like a sprig of lucky heather to articles that are riskily prejudicial.

And, because reporting makes more assumptions and fewer qualifications, commentary in turn becomes more certain. In order to compete with instant blogging, columnists and phone-ins are encouraged to deal with the hottest topics before it’s apparent whether they have a factual platform. Discussion comes before discovery.

Quicker on to the page or air, these opinions are, paradoxically, slower to disappear. For decades, journalistic ethics were dictated by chip shops. If something wrong or wrong-headed had been written, all parties concerned would have had the consolation that it would be turned into chip wrapper and dissolved by the vinegar within days. Columnists, in particular, benefited from this forgetfulness. The writers who changed their opinions on Princess Diana’s suitability as a mother in the course of one Parisian night were spotted only by the elephantine minds at Private Eye.

These days media opinions are likely to stay up longer than the shops in which fish and chips is sold. Most words about Bob Woolmer as murder victim can be retrieved; interviews with an early “suspect” who was never charged with the Ipswich murders can still be read online. Once doomed to vinegar, journalism is now destined for formaldehyde, and new policies are needed: either of more caution in reporting stories, or more acknowledgment when they prove to be wrong.

This article first appeared in Friday’s Guardian. To read the piece in full, click here