Journalism and the varieties of ‘scoop’

The world of journalism or scoop as Evelyn Waugh once described it, is in no short order of pejorative descriptions. Many of them, in my opinion, are well-earned. They serve as a kind of benchmark to remind reporters and journalists just how low they can drag the craft if they’re not careful.

Afghanistanism, for instance, describes the tendency of journalists and reporters to ignore local stories in favour of foreign events. For many people, this can be incredibly frustrating, especially when it means that important local issues are ignored and fail to come to the attention of politicians and others who can take action on whatever the issue happens to be.

In 2008, BBC journalist Waseem Zaki coined the term churnalism. It refers to journalists who rely on press releases or wire stories in their articles without checking the facts or investigating the subject matter. While Zaki believes that this happens largely because journalists are under difficult time constraints and have limited resources, I think it would be more honest to say that some reporters and writers are just lazy when crafting a story.

Another term that describes a similar tendency is circular reporting. It is used whenever journalists fail to check the original source of a story, thus allowing false information to circulate. There are a variety of possible reasons why journalists fail to scrutinize their stories and check their facts.

The biggest reason for this is the fact that declining revenues have forced much of the mainstream press to get rid of their fact-checking departments. However, poor training, a lack of knowledge about the field a journalist is reporting on and a variety of other human errors can account for this problem.

Perhaps the worst term I’ve across is dumbing down. It refers to journalists, broadcasters and public intellectuals who believe that the audience they’re addressing are too stupid to understand the material of the story. They believe that in order for the audience to understand it they have to ‘dumb’ it down to the point that the content of the story loses its original meaning.

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Unfortunately, journalists and other writers are notorious for this. It not only lowers standards, demeans the intelligence and abilities of people we do not know but worst of all it diminishes the importance we place as a society on critical thinking and academic discussion in the public forum.

One term closely associated with the idea of dumbing down is sensationalism. While this criticism is leveled against all types of media, it describes journalists who deliberately set out to blow their story out of all proportion. In other words, they make the story out to be more than what it really is. I think this tendency in journalism has more to do with the profit motive than it does with human failing but the main reason that readers detest it is that it has the effect of twisting or devaluing the truth in a story.

While most of these terms apply to journalism in general, some terms refer to specific areas of the craft. One of these is trial by media. It covers those reporting beats that pertain to court proceedings, criminal accusations and political scandals. The idea is that whenever a scandal or accusation catches the interest of the media, it receives so much coverage that the media in a way can determine or influence the innocence or guilt of the person involved depending on how the media covers it.

Journalists who make their living writing online for blogs, or alternative news sites have also earned their share of stereotypes too. The one that everyone knows of course is click bait. Although click bait does not originate with the internet and online news the term certainly does. It refers to journalists who write misleading, provocative and catchy headlines to increase the number of people who click on their article. Many people find this incredibly annoying. While every editor loves a ‘good’ headline, something that will really capture the attention of the reader, it is quite another thing altogether to mislead the reader so that they will be more likely to open the page.

The last and final one I’ll mention outbeats them all. It is not uncommon to hear people complain that the news never changes. Journalists, they say, are always reporting on the same thing. It’s always some disaster or explosion or heinous crime that finds its way to the television screen or the front pages of the newspaper. It’s never good uplifting news, in other words.

However, nothing quite competes, in my opinion, with what we see taking place in the world of social media. If you look carefully at the stories that some of the ‘mainstream’ social media sites are publishing on your Facebook feed, you will notice that they often recycle the exact same story. Not just once or twice but three or four times in some cases.

We don’t have a word for this new journalistic phenomenon yet, but it does signal a brand new low for the profession. I understand as a journalist myself that between declining revenues and excruciating time constraints, digging up fresh and interesting material can be difficult. But to recycle the same story over and over is not only misleading and unethical it is unprofessional.

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