Zoe Williams Declares Journalism A Waste Of Time

July 19, 2012

In an article that will bring succour to hard-pressed press officers everywhere, Zoe Williams has declared:

“Straight talking is one thing, but when you’re straight repeating work that has already been done, but sloppily, with less sophistication, drawing egregious conclusions, isn’t that a waste of time?”

Of course, she’s talking about policy advisers, not journalists, but exactly the same lesson applies. Any short-term investigation into a complex topic without spending a significant amount of time with the literature and the people who spend their lives digging into the subject will necessarily be superficial and has a high likelihood of coming out with conclusions only loosely related to the evidence to hand.

This is a not unreasonable summary of much journalism on complex topics, including, for example, the energy sector, the one with which I have the most familiarity. I distinctly recall a conversation with a very senior broadcast journalist in which he outlined the methodology by which he constructed his pieces: “I’ll spend about a day quickly reading everything I can about the subject, by the end of which I’ll be sufficiently expert on it to ask questions and come to conclusions I think the viewers will like. By the next day, I’ll have forgot all about it.”

No. It is impossible to become an expert in a day, but this is what journalism relies on: short-term investigations somehow translating into copy which is accurate and informative. This is not to say that journalists don’t get it right – in fact, they do so frequently, which does attest to many of them being at least passably clever – but that criticisms of policy advisers for facile investigations are somewhat hypocritical. Both the media and advisers play a role in shaping policy, and both have a responsibility to make their recommendations with as much rigour as possible. Neither side, right now, can justifiably criticise the other.

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