Back when I were a wee lad, journalism was about print. And that meant, if you had a story, you threw everything you had at it to get it as complete as possible in preparation for one thing: the Deadline. And the deadline was not just about an angry editor trying to fill the gaping void in his publication which you’d promised to fill. It was also the moment that, as far as you were concerned, the Story was Done. So you’d better be bloody certain you’d got it right. Or rather, as right as you could get it. If that meant last-minute calls and a flurry of rewriting even as the Editor approached, steam coming out of his ears, So Be It. Better to be Stressed than to be Wrong (or, even worse, Formally Corrected In The Next Issue).
I screwed up in my very first published newspaper piece, in the Guardian, a review of a book about the murder of John Lennon. The mistake I made was offhand and silly (I’d given the wrong publication date for Albert Goldman’s poison treatise on Lennon), but it meant getting called in and shouted at by the literary editor, who had already been bawled at by Goldman’s publisher. It was one of those silly mistakes which a newspaper is never going to correct without being pressured into it by m’learned friends, so the only option was to grovel. To the editor, to the publishers, to the whole damn world. I can still remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I realised what I’d done: I’d put something Wrong out into the world, and there it would remain, permanently and irrevocably Incorrect.
Flash forward almost 20 years (oh my God), and I find myself the subject of sloppy journalism rather than the creator of it. A couple of people got the wrong end of the stick today about some Channel 4 work we’ve been doing, and I found myself having to correct it. How did I do this? I twittered the journalists involved. I left a comment on one of their articles (the other didn’t have commenting facilities). At the time of writing, they haven’t corrected their pieces, but I’m hopeful that they might.
It’s clear what’s happening here.
Firstly, the ability to correct stories on the fly (aka The Death of the Deadline) means that, conceptually at least, a story is never finished. It’s always subject to refinement and change. This is a Good Thing.
However, the Death of the Deadline means sloppiness becomes a danger. Without the adrenalin rush of commitment, it’s perhaps easier for writers to fly a bit closer to the seats of their pants.
But when they do, we are there to correct it, the subjects of their efforts. We know (by definition) more than they do about the subject, it being ourselves. We understand the impact of their journalism, because it happens to us immediately. We are invested in its being as correct as possible.
Now, if I was a particular type of strategic snake oil salesman, I’d be saying We Are All Journalists Now, or some such nonsense. But my point is that, rather than being The Word From The Mountaintop, journalism is necessarily morphing into the Current Best Guess about a particular story. It outlines the facts as the journalist understands them but (and this is the snake oil bit) I think it also opens up a space in which those facts can be refined and illuminated by other perspectives, be they from comments, corrections or other means. Each story becomes a miniature Wikipedia, capable of refinement (but, caveat emptor, also capable of infinite distortion, which raises the interesting matter of what happens to Authority).
As for the journos out there, some advice. If a subject of a story reaches out to you, respond (and if they reach out to you on Twitter, respond quickly and personably). Feel relaxed about involving them in making your story better. And don’t forget the axiomatic first rule: put in the calls and get it right in the first place. If someone you’re writing about has gone to the effort of publishing information about what they’re doing, then make the effort to read what they’ve said, rather than what someone said they said. It’s not rocket science, this stuff.