...But that doesn't mean we don't try. An essay in defence of a word and its meaning, at a time when journalism is bruised and battered, but standing strong

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
    "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

I'm a journalist. It's what I do for a living. But just what that word 'journalist' means and what it is journalists do is morphing and twisting in so many ways, that many people are starting to feel as bewildered as Alice, in Through the Looking Glass. And it's certainly prompting a few nice knock-down arguments.

I've had several arguments with people in Pundit threads this past summer over the importance of independent journalism in the light of the the profession's wrestling with its own purpose and principles after the election of President Donald Trump in America.

They reflect arguments happening all over the world at the moment as news coverage fragments and all sorts of groups calling themselves news organisations and all sorts of people calling themselves journalists corrupt the very core of the journalistic code that is often summed up in a single phrase: "without fear or favour".

This past weekend, a former colleague of mine at both TVNZ and TV3, Phile Vine, talked to RNZ's Mediawatch about his new job at Greenpeace. He calls himself a journalist.

Now here's the thing: Phil is one of the best – if not the best – visual storytellers in the business. He's an excellent journalist. When TV3 cancelled 3D, I hired him for The Nation and he made one of the best and most important pieces of long-form journalism seen in New Zealand in recent years. He's an excellent journalist.

At least he was. 

As much as I respect Phil, I can't go along with calling him a journalist when he's working for an activst organisation that calls itself "a movement". Greenpeace has many journalism-friendly virtues, most notably its independence from corporate or governmental funding and its commitment to "bear witness", but it's undoubtedly an organisation with an agenda. More than a mere point of view, it has a mission. It's a mission that may or may not be in the public interest, but whatever it is, he's bound to it. And that disqualifies him from using that title, I believe.

But it's a nuanced argument, so let's unpick it a bit. Phil told Mediawatch's Colin Peacock, Greenpeace was a politically and financially independent organisation. That independence, he argued, meant he was no more compromised at Greenpeace than at a media company under financial pressure from commercial pressures.

He holds to his personal journalistic ethics as he always has. He will find compelling stories and tell them, just as he always has. You might add, that he will gather, edit and present information, which by definition makes him a journalist. Phil argues all that's new is that, in a world where primetime current affairs programmes no longer exist (with the exception of TVNZ's Sunday), he's found a different platform. Same song, different stage.

Phil said:

"I look at it more like a statement of intent. I still want to pursue and film stories that matter to New Zealanders and I still will continue to do that with a fiercely independent outlook within an independent organisation." 

But it's in Phil's own words that my problem lies. Because it comes down to independence and intent.

I accept that Phil may be able to make stories identical to what might have gone to air a couple of years back on 3D. And, more substantially, I accept mainstream media is struggling to maintain its precious independence. 

Journalism has always suffered under the weight of all sorts of imperfections, more so now than it has for a long time. Increasingly, access to power is hard to get and often comes with conditions. Questions can only be about certain topics, at this time, and in this place. Often direct questioning is not allowed and communication is controlled by the use of written statements.

Even if you get the access that allows direct questioning, you often confront a person who has been trained to say as little as possible, or nothing other than the inane repitition of some pre-established core message.

These days, the ombudsman has fretted about the power of political gatekeepers, something I've seen growing first hand. I've spent years being told by press secretaries that politicians will only agree to be interviewed "when he/she have something to say". I've had them ask for my programme's ratings as a way of deciding whether they will bother to agree to be questioned, ask me why they should bother when they can reach voters through Facebook without the bother of interruptions, and tell me that they won the election, so they don't have to debate with opponents for another three years.

In all these ways, independence (and democracy) die little by little. 

Journalists are limited by time, money and, increasingly, off-peak slots. Sponsors expect slots on programmes and products "integrated" on-screen; substantial journalism leans increasingly on the crutch of New Zealand on Air funding; and newsroom populations are getting smaller and younger. 

Your average daily journalists race through their days trying to tweet, do live crosses, create Facebook content and whip out the odd blog all while trying to gather facts, call contacts and process the complex issues they are covering. Then, having done all that, they sit back and endure the abuse of people who would be horrified if people dared to judge their day's work, but feel no compunction in damning the professionalism of people working in a business they know next to nothing about. 

Then there's the pressue of ratings or circulation. Winning an audience is a wonderfully democratic way of testing whether your story matters to people; I've long thought doing journalism that matters was never an excuse to be dull or write for some clubby elite. But audiences and journalists can conspire to make the important boring and vital news seem like the limp brussel sprouts of your childhood. It's hard to do the news in an era where cats, not content, are king.

Phil understands that as well as anyone, having lost a job and a strong team of colleages because a couple of bean counters with no committment to independence or intent thought (perhaps even correctly) they could make more money out of reality TV than they could out of long-form journalism.

And, on top of that all, journalists have to deal with their own biases and baggage. We all have views, bad days, blind spots and imperfect knowledge. We make human mistakes and even get things wrong, despite the checking and double-checking. (My wife this week has had a flood of hectoring letters criticising a single grammatical error she made in an editorial, in a week where she and just one other part-timer put together an entire magazine). 

So I get all the mainstream media failings and don't pretent any of it's perfect. I get Phil's arugment that mainstream journalism comes with bias and all the rest.

But for me, that's not the point. Those are all problems from the journey, not from your place of origin. Or your intent. And the main reason I don't see Phil as a journalist is that, when he arrives at work each day, he starts from a fundamentally different place than I do.

When I, or another journalist at RNZ, start on a story, we are able – no, expected – to follow the evidence wherever it leads. We are expected to work in the public interest. Now you can debate what that means until the cows come home, but it means – within the bounds of all those imperfections I listed – I make independent editorial judgements. 

Phil can't do that. Colin Peacock asked him what would happen if he decided, based on his investigations and evidence gathered, that nuclear power or GE foods were good for humanity and he wanted to report that. Phil argued that Greenpeace wasn't an orgnisation of monolithic opinions and he would "not be pushed down". 

I'm sorry, I don't buy it. Greenpeace's own website says:

Greenpeace opposes all releases of genetically Engineered organisms into the environment. Such organisms are being released without adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.

They could not have someone writing stories on the same site contradicting that stance. It would lack integrity. Or, if that could somehow be allowed, how about dairying or mining? What if Phil wanted to report the viewpoint, or even any evidence, suggesting that a few dirty rivers or holes in the earth were worth the gain of important food and minerals?

I don't believe he'd have that sort of independence, because Greenpeace's intent is not objective information in the public interest, but protecting the earth.

I could go on. Is he really independent to interview an expert from Forest & Bird if he believes him better prepared than one at Greenpeace? Is he free to tell the other side of the story with the same resources and vigour? (Phil said he wants to tell the stories of farmers, but the 'good ones' farming without irrigation, presumably not the ones who are happy to lose a river or two for the sake of dramatically increased production).

And, fundamentally, if he decides the public interest is better served by him reporting on child abuse, space travel or a prisoner's toupee, he can't make an independent decision to do that.

For me, intent matters. Because that lies behind independence. 

That can be seen in another story that appeared last weekend, the day before Phil's Mediawatch interview aired. The Washington Post reported that the pool reporter ("that is, the reporter who supplied details about Pence’s daily activities as proxy for the rest of the press corps") covering Vice President Mike Pence one day last week was an employee of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank.

"In other words, the news that reporters received about the vice president came from a journalist employed by an organization with a vested interest in the direction of White House and federal policy," the Post reported.

"The short answer is that it’s concerning that news organizations with a clear and stated bias are serving as the eyes and ears of the White House press corps, regardless of their political leaning,” said Andrew Seaman, a Reuters reporter who is chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “In a perfect world, only news organizations with editorial independence and proven track records of reliability should be able to provide pool reports for the White House or any other government agency or official.”

I think that rams home my point. Whatever Phil's immense skills as a journalist, he's now working for an organisation with a vested interest. If I say I'm comfortable with Phil being called a journalist, then logic demands I have to be happy with someone, say, from the NRA or an climate change-denying group taking the title as well. And I'm not. I'm just not.

There has to be meaning attached to the word journalist. One good list of meanings I found writing this come from the American Press Institute's page, 'The elements of Journalism'. Take a look. 

Phil could tick some of those boxes. I'm sure his first obligation remains to the truth (although if, as noted, that contradicted a Greenpeace policy, I can't see how he could report it). I'm sure he will verify what he reports. I'm sure he will provide space for public criticism.

But he cannot, working for a campaigning organisation, say his first loyalty is to citizens. It must be to members, surely. It must be to the cause.

So what do we call Phil instead? Russell Brown mentioned on Twitter that he's done some of his best investigative work for campaigning organisations (and I'm not saying that can't be truly investigative work, but rather that it just has to come with the asterix of intent, the caveat that the funder has an agenda).

Russell suggested calling it 'advocacy media'. That makes sense to me. It allows that it's media, but makes it clear it comes with that asterix. The word journalism isn't twisted to fit.

For the sake of the brusied and battered journalism now being practised and its still potent core values, let's not blur the lines any more than we have to. What Phil does now, I'm sure he will be great at. He'll do it factually, with integrity, and with great pictures and scripts. Cos that's what he does. But just don't call it journalism.

Comments (20)

by Lynn Prentice on March 17, 2017
Lynn Prentice

Agree with all of that. I also think you have a moderately narrow focus because you're ignoring those of us who write and publish simply because we can...

Despite being the sysop at The Standard political blog for nearly 10 years doing oped posts, moderation, and comments in  my spare time - I've never considered myself to be a journalist - for pretty much the reasons that you outline. Investigating stories and writing (for humans) isn't what I do for a living. It is what I do because I like doing it for pleasure. Prefereably in a rather anonymous fashion where what I say is more important than who I am. 

That is despite the rather strange decision by judge saying that Cameron Slater was a journalist rather than the lowlife sleazeball dumpster diver for gossip that he (and his mates) are. I guess that bearing in mind some of the pretty low levels that journalists can get to (in NZ - the Truth and most current TV news comes to mind), the judge had to err on the side of caution :)

But I really detest having him (and implicitly) myself gaining the limited hard-won protections of journalists because whilst blogging we occassionaly cause stories to break.

But there is a place for non-journalists that has appeared due to the dropping costs of publishing and distributing to the public. What Greenpeace does advocating their particular focus or what we do would have been technically impossible even a few decades ago. A bit of writing, and then push not only to a public place on the web but also highlight that writing to a wide range of people via email, facebook, twitter, and RSS within seconds.

While I'll keep my day (and often night) job writing code and talking to hardware. I'll sometimes find time to bang out occassional opinions when I get annoyed enough to be bothered to research and write them. I usually have more than enough fun researching to support my code writing and that pays a lot better than journalism over the long term. Writing for humans usually involves me getting irritated by some humans getting particularly stupid first and needing some corrective dissent.

Blogs allow a different perspective when you don't have to try to make a living directly or indirectly off the writing. Look at us running a countrywide site (90% of human readers from NZ and most of the rest are offshore kiwis) on less than $200 per month in operational costs servicing between 35,000/40,000 (normal) and 65,000 (election 2014) distinct individuals per month.

In the days of my youth, that would have been a reasonable circulation for a regional newspaper. It probably dwarfs the actual peak readership of the newspaper from which we took our name. These days we do it often without even bothering to ever meeting each other.

The effort involved to organise the people and to keep a lid on the trolls is way less than the kinds of effort that I used to do organising local political activities. It is also a teeny fraction of the time that I'd exert in any management position I have been in now or in the past. With the types of people who have the time, inclination, and knowledge to research and write posts; well, they usually organise themselves. When they don't Mike Smith and I as site trustees will eventually get irritated with the babble and sort it out expidtiously when we have time.  Sure, some bloggers try to make a business out of blogging opinions. Look at Whaleoil or even Kiwiblog where there do appear to be some quite distinct business models associated with it. If only the obvious one of acting as message testing for PR outfits. That was a pretty explicit business model for Whaleoil prior to "Dirty Politics" exposing it. But it also obviously a pretty good adjunct for Farrar's polling company. But then look at things like TransportBlog or Public Address or us or most of the blogs around. Somewhat different..

These days, due to cheaper technology reducing our costs, we're not funded by anything apart from some small largely anonymous donations. The size of those for us for a month is about what I'd drink in coffee in a week. I tend to make up any shortfalls out of my petty cash. Which means that questions of undue influence due to funding don't even arise.  

Authors and even commenters know that we have no particular wish to go into court to defend them if they're traipsing over the legal limits. But that we're perfectly prepared to deal with fools inside or outside of the blog if we think that they are expressing a clear opinion or are on clear verifiable public facts. The only real problem we've had in almost 10 years was Cameron Slater trying to hire someone to hack my personal servers, and one of his dimwitted mates trying to do a private prosectution and failing miserably.

None of my employers, while willing to see me doing the occassional bit of moderation or even write a quick post at work, want me to advocate for anything they are doing. Generally my contracts either explicitly or implicitly state that I'm not allowed to do so anyway. They want me to do the job that I'm paid for and to make up any time I take to do other things. Figuring out how to balky hardware and software to work together is what I do for a living. Public writing is just something I do because I can...

From talking to other authors at TS, it is pretty much the same with all of them. What we write about usually has little to do with work or even what we volunteer for outside of work. It is what we feel is important to write about. Including even the redoubtable Helen Kelly when she was writing about forestry deaths while she was also working as head of the CTU. It was something she felt strongly enough to raise as an issue outside of the work channel - and that is what we help to provide. 

We lean on journalists for public information, just as we do on the transparency of other information around the net - especially from official government sites. Similarly we listen to what people are saying around us, what we observe, and what we read. We even read the comments on our site and others to find out what else is bubbling up. About half of my 868 published posts (out of the 20 thousand odd posts) have arisen from something that someone has said in comments. 

But in the end what we write is what we know and what we infer, and sometimes even what we speculate about in the areas of public interest. Sometimes we even make observations about the performance of journalists...

Welcome to the world of lots of educated intelligent feedback into the public discourse. The dropping of the costs of publishing means that it is something that can be done by anyone if they really want to do it. That means that journalists will wind sharing their audience rather than being the only real game around as it used to be,

But generally, we aren't journalists. We are neither paid to be, and most of us really don't want to be.

by Tim Watkin on March 17, 2017
Tim Watkin

I've had it pointed out to me that others who are clearly doing PR, are also calling themselves journalists. That's the sort of thing that is not even close to journalism and a very good example of why I worry about the misuse of the word.

by Graeme Edgeler on March 17, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

I tend to prefer to think about journalism, rather than journalists.

What is the advantage of determining that Phil Vine, while employed by Greenpeace, is not a Journalist? Is it that, if he was to get a tip about slave-like conditions on overseas fishing boat owned by a New Zealand company, you want to make sure that if he's ever asked in Court about how he found out about it, you want to make sure the judge doesn't consider him eligible to rely on the protection we give journalists in the Evidence Act? Do you want to make sure that if he's covering a criminal trial, and some evidence is heard with the public excluded, you want to make sure Radio NZ can stay (if not report) and that he cannot? Is it that you want to make sure he can't be nominated for a journalism award?

You suggest that he's not independant of Greenpeace. I agree. But I wonder whether you, as someone who works at RNZ, would take the same approach if you found evidence that a reporter at TVNZ was clearly plagiarising, as you would if you found a reporter at RNZ was? You might break a story about TVNZ plagiarism, but be unable to break one about RNZ plagiarism because your obligations as an employer mean you aren't independant of RNZ. But I don't think the fact you're not wholly indpendent of RNZ means that other things you do are not journalism.

I suggest the same is true of Phil Vine. If something he does is journalism, then for that he is a journalist. That you get to criticise him by asking "why don't you write about the benefits of GE"? doesn't mean that the things he does write are not journalism.

by Ross on March 17, 2017

I recall watching an episode of TV3's 3rd Degree (later changed to 3D). It was about the David Bain case and it was terrible. The presenters may as well have been wearing "I Love David" badges, it was so one sided. Journalists can be just as biased and display those biases as much as non-journalists.

Russell suggested calling it 'advocacy media'.

It's commonly called advocacy journalism.

"Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda. It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets, since the bias is intended."


by Lee Churchman on March 17, 2017
Lee Churchman

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.

This isn't quite the correct comparison. A term can have a lexical meaning, but be misused so much that the lexical meaning becomes unimportant. Philosophers have been complaining about misuse of "begs the question" for years, but it makes no difference: most people now use it to mean "asks the question"

If enough of the public use 'journalism' to mean something else, then that is its common meaning. Whether they do this on purpose to denigrate what used to be called journalism is beside the point. It's the politics of language, and 'real' journalists and their supporters no longer have the power to reclaim the word or to police it outside of their own communities. And that just shows us the impotence of traditional journalism . People have moved on.

by Charlie on March 17, 2017

As far as I can see, Greenpeace is a corporation,

When you have a 200+ million euro annual budget you're a business.

So your friend Phil is just a lobbyist now.



by barry on March 17, 2017

"without fear or favour"

I am sorry, if that is the criterion then you are a very select few in NZ (and elsewhere) Tim.

by Tim Watkin on March 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

Graeme, a specific is often a good example of a principle, and I went to great lengths to spell out and illustrate the principle. So no, it's none of those reasons you raise. It's the reasons I laid out in the post.

And no, I think self-coverage by media in NZ is often pretty poor. It's a fine line, because most media 'news' these days is celebrity gossip. And really, we don't need more of it, whoever it's done by. On the other hand, most of it is terribly compromised. If a certain network's host is in the news, they often treat it differently (or not at all) than other media. I have some sympathy with the 'not at all' approach on occasion. But on others. I'm not impressed with the way spin interfers with news. 

But it's not always that way. I remember Lisa Owen staking out TVNZ's own bosses (ie her own bosses) when she worked there. That was how it should be, without fear or favour. But as I say, sometimes when you're too close to a story and can't be without fear or favour, it's better not to cover it at all.

But independent news media doing a job badly and non-independent media are quite different things to my mind. I'll pick up on that in my reply to Ross.


by Tim Watkin on March 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

Ross (and Graeme), I'm sorry, but taking a specific example of a piece of journalism you didn't like and saying 'look, journalists can be biased too', completely misses my point.

I went to great lengths to conceed that journalists are human and makes mistakes and come with baggage. But let's look at your example. In that case, you reckon Mel Reid was biased. I think your understanding of bias is off.

What Melanie did was talk to a bunch of experts who had been investigating the case (gun and bullets in particular) and had come to a conclusion. That was an important development to cover in an important case. From memory, she acknowledged contrary points of view and that the conclusions would be controversial. That's something I think a Greenpeace employee would struggle to do.

But, I agree, she certainly reported the story in a way that showed she was sympathetic to the findings of those experts. I think it would be reasonable to call it advocacy journalism; she took a side. And as long as that is done entirely transparently, I think that's OK. (Although I'd urge you to remember the whole presentation. It was on 3rd Degree, hosted by Duncan Garner and Guyon Espiner, and when the story ended and cut back to them for the bit of chat after, you could see quite clearly that they were sceptical of the findings. So the context offered a little balance.

But, to get to the point, that's entirely different from what Phil's doing and saying. Mel was free in her job to come to her conclusion from the evidence she had investigated. That was my point that she could follow the evidence wherever it led. You may disagree with her conclusion, but she was free to come to it and did not do so lightly.

Phil is NOT free to come to any conclusion. His job parameters are quite different to Mel's. That's the underlying principle of independence and intent.

Graeme, it's a similar reply to your final par. It's not the specfic story, it's the principle of his employment and raison d'etre. Yes, if he did another job for an independent media organisation that asked him to report independently on an issue, sure he can wear two hats. (Although it's hard not to blur those). But again, to go back to the principle, working in that job with the intent and lack of independence inherent to it I'm saying that's not journalism.

by Tim Watkin on March 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

Lee, I don't think most people see this as journalism; this is new. I'm writing something like this precisely to stop the drift in that direction. 

by Tim Watkin on March 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

barry, what do you do for a living? Perhaps people looking in at what you do from the outside also make sweeping, unfair generalisations that misconstrue the good work done by many of your colleagues? Just wondering.

If you're going to dismiss an entire profession like that, you'd better come with some evidence. And it had better not be anecdotal, because all you'd be doing then is undermining your own argument.

If you think the vast bulk of NZ journalists lack independence and show either fair or bias, please prove it. Or perhaps you're just trolling? Or using hyperbole based on actually only a few examples?

by Lee Churchman on March 19, 2017
Lee Churchman

Lee, I don't think most people see this as journalism; this is new. I'm writing something like this precisely to stop the drift in that direction. 

Too late. How many people think that Fox News is journalism? Look at New Zealand, where 'journalists' assisted in smearing the Labour leader in the last election campaign – surprising even me. Are those taking the Murdoch shilling really less independent than Greenpeace's Mr Vine? 

If you work for Radio New Zealand, PBS, the CBC, or another remaining bastion of traditional journalism, great. But those regarding that as 'real' journalism are people like me, a minority. For various reasons – some malicious – the public authority of the profession is mostly gone. That to me is a central fact of our time. 

Now that the barbarians run the show, perhaps we should stop talking as if they are still at the gate. 

by Ross on March 20, 2017

she took a side. And as long as that is done entirely transparently, I think that's OK.

Yes and no. If the programme makers are clear that they are advocating for someone or something, I think that is OK. But even then, it must be factual, it must be credible and it's useful to give the other side a chance to respond. Police didn't appear on the episode I referred to but journalist Martin van beynen did. What was up with that!? However, van Beynen made some helpful comments about the programme.

"I would have a lot more faith in the TV3 programme if it had tried to be at least a little independent. The photographic expert the programme consulted was Christchurch-based Peter Durrant, a scientific and technical photographer who in 1985 developed a new photographic technique for analysing the visual effects of wear on the pile of carpets.

He is not a forensic scientist and has no expertise about firearms and residues on bodies. He also gave evidence as a defence expert for Bain in the second trial and was largely discredited, in my view, when it turned out the photographs he had produced to support a defence theory were out of the sequence in which they were taken.

An ESR scientist was at the test firing featured in the programme. Was he asked for his view?

As viewers, we also need to ask why an independent forensic scientist was not consulted before reporter Melanie Reid concluded emotively, the "game changer" had been found. TV3 bought the defence line on the evidence and did a one-sided job presenting it.

The programme, and the media coverage of the Bain case in general, also raises a wider issue.

Everyone would have noticed the new information was released first to Bain-friendly media. TV3 had the exclusive and The Herald had the first newspaper story. (TV3 also got the first patsy television interview with David Bain.)

Fairfax Media did not get a look in and neither did TVNZ. Both have published and broadcast material unfavourable to the Bain camp.

You also have to ask, if the information was so crucial, why wasn't it shown to the Minister of Justice first so she could get Crown experts to investigate."

Advocacy can be great but it needs to be done well. The David Bain story on 3rd Degree was simply garbage.Why anyone would try to defend it is beyond me.



by Tim Watkin on March 20, 2017
Tim Watkin

Lee, I'm sorry if I'm repeating myself but I feel all i can do is keep saying it over and over. You're arguing a different point. You can argue about the quality of journalism; people always have. People will always take a view that X interviewer was unfair to a certain politician or Y journalist is biased.

There are complaints processes for that and laws.

That's entirely different from someone not a journalist for the fundamental reasons I lay out claiming to be one.

You might not think X pilot is very good, gave you a bumpy ride, you didn't get the right snacks and they shouted at someone getting off the plane. But they did their job of getting you from Place A to Place B as per your ticket. My concern is for the person calling themselves a pilot, but who's job is to always fly to the same place, even if you've bought a ticket for elsewhere... or someone who can only drive buses. 

So yes, someone working for an independent news organisation - even one you don't like - is different from Phil. Now you may argue certain parts of certain news organisations toe a certain line. Yep, I've got problems with that. But that's a different issue.

Plus, people of great journalists work for big corporates and don't compromise their independence. So please don't make those generalisations. 

As I've said before, if the barbarians really do take control root and branch, you'll wish you hadn't been quite so dismissive of all the good hacks still working today.

by Tim Watkin on March 20, 2017
Tim Watkin

Ross, you're still focusing on one specific case, yet you used that to make generalisations about the whole, huge industry. Don't you accept that's terribly unfair?

I'm not going to get into debating a single story on a single programme; you don't just a whole programme by one item, let alone a whole industry. Do you go to the zoo, look at the meerkats and assume every animal is small and furry?

Your opinion on that is fine, but also irrelevant to this discussion. Because it's just an opinion about one story. I'm not here to defend or condemn Mel on this story, I'm simply saying she was free to investigate to story where it led. The fact that after months of work she came to  conclusion you didn't like, in a manner you didn't like is not relevant to her status as a journalist. She's a journalist.

As with Lee, what you're arguing about the quality of something, not whether it is that something or not. For example, I can guarantee that you would point to other bits of great journalism that others would say is 'garbage', and vice versa. 

Of course, if it was as bad as you say, you had every right to complain to the BSA or Press Council. With a Greenpeace story, you wouldn't.

Hope you get the different point I'm trying to make.

by Lee Churchman on March 20, 2017
Lee Churchman

My concern is for the person calling themselves a pilot, but who's job is to always fly to the same place, even if you've bought a ticket for elsewhere... or someone who can only drive buses. 

This is a perfect description of what it is like to work for Rupert Murdoch, as opposed to working for CNN. The Murdoch press is 'institutionally awful'. We only need compare their sports coverage with their political coverage. Sports journalism has no real trouble holding to journalistic ethics. Even Murdoch's rags don't have much trouble reporting accurately and valuing the truth when it comes to sports. 

As with Lee, what you're arguing about the quality of something, not whether it is that something or not

This is a sophistical argument: it trades on an equivocation.

Of course if we define a journalist as someone who occupies a particular position of employment, then someone can be called a journalist even if they violate the norms associated with that job. But given the political and legal leeway such people enjoy to propagandise (as evidenced by Murdoch and company), worrying about who counts as a journalist in this sense has no real value – because the title has almost no value.There's certainly no reason for a rational person to care whether such people are called 'journalists' and employed by Rupert or called something else and employed by Greenpeace. The legal, social, and political comeback the public have in these cases is basically non-existent due to social norms about press freedom. 

On the other hand, if we use the normative sense of 'journalism', it means someone holding to a certain set of journalistic ethics. It's pretty easy to see that someone could do this without being employed professionally as a journalist (say if they were employed by Greenpeace). It's also easy to see that there are some organisations that are set up against these values. I admit, the New York Times sometimes gets it wrong, but the institution is more or less trying to be honest in the way we all are. Fox News is not trying to be honest – it is a propaganda outlet (the left have their own versions such as the Socialist Worker). 

The normative sense of journalist is what really matters to people. And like other normative terms it is one that someone can disqualify themselves from by repeatedly violating the norm. For example, I can still be called a 'good person' if I make mistakes or act from ignorance, but I can't be called a 'good person' if I repeatedly and intentionally do awful things. 

by Ross on March 20, 2017

Hope you get the different point I'm trying to make.

I do get your point but I feel it's a little too fine for my liking. A distinction without a difference perhaps.

Phil Vine made the point in his interview that he's an advocacy journalist, and he did plenty of advocacy journalism on Fair Go. So for him, nothing seems to have changed. I'd rather someone admit that they're an advocacy journalist than pretend they're part of the mainstream media with no axe to grind. That's dishonest journalism. Yes, there are journalists who simply report the news. But there are more and more journalists who seem to believe that they are the news and are happy to give us their opinions.


by barry on March 20, 2017


Perhaps it was a bit harsh, and there are some (like yourself) for whom the phrase has meaning.  However after seeing how willingly the majority of the political press gallery succumbed to the Dirty Politics tactics I am rather skeptical. If I recall, only one came out with a "mea culpa" afterwards.

In any case "favour" is impossible to avoid as people approach anything from their own world view and it takes herculean strength of mind to avoid bias.

Whether "fear" is an issue for many, I can't say

by Tim Watkin on March 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Lee, I simply disagree with your declaration of what matters to people. I think the title has immense value and rational people have very reason to care. Now more than any other time in the past half century, at least.

i also think your sweeping generalisations about journalism - offering no distinction between new and opinion, for example - creates real problems for your argument.

And if you, and Ross, think the distinction between the two is to fine, the have I got a press council for you! While I sadly admit it's more blurred than it was, if it's transgressed half as often as you imply, you can be sending complaints in every month because there' ps a clear industry standard that journalists are held to on just that point.

by Tim Watkin on March 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Barry, there's an irony in your dig about Dirty Politics. It seems your own bias is showing there! Again, a journalist coming to a conclusion you don't like is not evidence of a lack of independence. In fact, it often proves the point. Journalists are free to report the facts as they find them.

Really, fallen creature that we are, there would be few people in newsrooms even today who wouldn't impart huge meaning on that phrase. You might as well accuse an All Black of not caring about rucking.

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