Bullshit and journalism

Forget high-minded, rose-tinted commandments like these, journalism isn’t about integrity, objectivity or, lawd preserve us, education.

It’s about bullshit.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Necessarily.

A key part of what a journalist does is take a complicated story then condense, distill and edit it, before regurgitating it in a form that is accessible and interesting to the general public. And journalists are regularly asked to do this with subjects they don’t know anything about. They’ll research, of course, conduct interviews, ask experts, analyse and consider, but they’ll also, ultimately, bullshit. Because while journalists are not experts, they will end up having to pose as experts, or at least they will if the piece is going to be any good, because if it’s going to be any good it has to appear authoritative.

In an ideal world, journalists would only write about things they know a lot about, but – to take me for example – there are only so many articles you can write about tunnels, Chelsea Football Club, the 1968 American Presidential election and museum exhibition architecture.

So you have to diversify. In the last month, I’ve written about ballet, poetry and fashion. These are three subjects I know zilch – in fact, less than zilch – about, but that hasn’t stopped me writing about them. Why? Three reasons: because I was asked to, because I thought it might be interesting and because I needed the money.

All journalists do this to some extent, but features writers (such as myself) do it more than most, because we don’t specialise in anything – not in a single sport or art or type of business – and so turn our attention to whatever takes our fancy or whatever pays the bills.

This is both fulfilling and frustrating . Fulfilling because I have an inquisitive mind, so enjoy learning about new things and then translating this new information into a form that hopefully attracts the reader without pissing off the experts by making great clunking errors or hideous simplifications.

But it can also be annoying, especially when you end up writing articles on subjects you’re not really equipped to write about – equipped in the sense of having the knowledge that comes from years of reading and internal debate – simply because that is where your contacts have led you, while you can’t write about what you’re genuinely knowledgeable about because you haven’t made the connections.

On one level, this is a market failure, and comes down to the fact that you can understand the topic inside out, but that doesn’t help if you don’t know the editor or the PR or are beaten to the pitch by a canny competitor. And it works both ways. I bet one or two of my journalist friends are wondering why they hell I’ve been writing about fashion given that until last week I thought Manolo Blahnik was a Mexican superhero.

I think the public accepts this without fully understanding it. On one level, they know journalists have to bullshit – and it must be horribly obvious whenever a journalist covers the area they specialise in professionally – but at the same time, they would be genuinely shocked if they realised exactly how little we really know about some of the things we are entrusted to write about. They’d probably think it’s a bloody stupid way of doing things, unless their business also regularly employs people to work well outside their area of speciality, which might be the case if they are politicians. 

But that’s journalism: bluff and bullshit. And the best bloody profession on earth if you believe in knowing a little about a lot and making up the rest.

5 responses to “Bullshit and journalism

  1. I guess it’s true of a lot of professions, mind. Politicians have to vote and debate on a wide range of topics they can’t possibly understand to any depth. PR and marketing folk know how to push the right buttons, but probably know little about the actual product or service they’re selling. Even teachers must do a fair amount of bluffing – reading up on a subject the night before they impart their wisdom on the class.

  2. I would ask that journalists do stay away from subjects of some importance, if this is how it works, though. For instance, every scientific story ever over the past 10 years. the world could have done with less of the ‘superbug’ or mmr hysteria through a slim to no of understanding of the subject at hand, and which, with the latter, there is now a great deal of unwarranted cynicism from the general public around the subject. Also, less, ‘happiest day of the year’ stories as well.

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  4. Great post 🙂

    My first job involved writing for a big parenting magazine. “But you don’t have kids!” exclaimed everyone outside the magic journalists’ circle. I’d patiently explain that neither did the pregnant mums who read the advice I was writing, so what I wrote had better make sense to them too. Sometimes, being an “expert” can mean you end up writing something that’s incomprehensible to joe public, leaving your less savvy reader floundering which, in my opinion, is a case of bad journalism if ever there was one.

    You’re right. Good journalists take complicated things, gently sieve them through a tight net of common sense, research and corroborative evidence, and present the results to the reader of whatever publication you’re working for in the appropriate manner.

    And as for the bluff and bullshit that sticks the pieces together after they’ve come through that sieve, they’re fun too.

    And there was plenty of that going on in my classroom when I was a teacher too…

    Perhaps it’s me?!

    But as for your conclusion, I couldn’t agree more: “the best bloody profession on earth if you believe in knowing a little about a lot and making up the rest.” Amen to that.

  5. I always liked Vincent Hanna’s summary of how to do journalism: “Simplify, then exaggerate”…

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