In my last article, I discussed the problem in technology journalism with reporting rumours and leaks as news when the information is not confirmed. This whipped up quite a storm on Twitter between technology journalists about the fundamental nature of news. In particular, Charles Arthur of the Guardian presented an opposing view, and argued his corner against myself, All About Symbian's Steve Litchfield, and CNET UK's Natasha Lomas, among others.
Charles' views on news were based on the following account of a journalism seminar in 2006, "News is personal in a connected world". If you'll bear with me, I want to make a step by step reply to this article.
"What is the definition of news? Is it what's in newspapers? Is it, in that Northcliffe dictum, something that someone, somewhere doesn't want published (while all the rest is advertising)? Is it something you haven't heard before? Is it new information about specific and timely events?"
The last two points are equivalent, from an individual's point of view. If I haven't heard something before, timely or not, it's news to me. We should note here that the status of one's knowledge of the item of news has no dependency on the individual's interest in it.
"None of those explain why to some, a thousand people being massacred in Darfur is galvanising news, and for others, it is the identity of the latest evictee from the Big Brother house. Even archaeology generates news and you can be enthralled by old newspapers you find at the bottom of cupboards: so news need not even be new."
Well, they do explain those things partially. However, this point is looking at people's reactions to the news, not whether something satisfies the definition of news. Personally, I feel that "sports news" is an oxymoron, but my feelings don't matter, it is still news according to the above definition, because sports news covers the facts of sporting events.
"A seminar last week, held under the Chatham House rule (which says you can report who was there and what was said, but not who said what), drew together journalists, bloggers, academics, mobile phone company representatives and lawyers to try to find an answer. Fortunately, within the first hour someone gave the best definition of news I have ever heard: "I don't get a newspaper. In the morning, I go to my computer and look at the Macrumors site [which has the latest rumours about Apple Computers' forthcoming products] and then the BBC news site and the Register [a technology news site] and then the blog of this woman who lives out in Wales ..." A shrug. "It's stuff I care about, and stuff I want to pass on."
Hearing that phrase was an epiphany. That is what news really is to the recipient. That is what newspapers, radio and TV struggle endlessly to find: the right combination of stories their readers, listeners and viewers will care about or gossip about. John Prescott plays croquet! Do you care? Maybe. Will you pass it on? Hell, yes. Someone is evicted from the BB house. Do I care? No. Will I pass it on? No: it is not news to me. For others, it is. News is a subjective commodity. This definition was quickly adopted in the seminar as the acid test for news."
To me, this is confusing two different concepts. The person was describing the content he was interested in, some of it was news, and some of it wasn't. For example, the very name "Macrumours" disqualifies itself, by definition, as being a news outlet. Sure, it may have titillating posts that the speaker would want to pass on to his fellow Mac fans, but that doesn't make it magically transcend from rumour to news. Take the Big Brother example, the eviction is news, whether you're interested in it or not. Therefore, news – the facts of an event – is not subjective; the subjective aspect is whether an individual finds a news item interesting.
I won't quote more of Charles' article in case I breach copyright – I think I'm still within the realms of fair use. However, the article goes on to question the future of journalism in a connected world where journalists may become side-lined in the wake of consumers selectively aggregating content from a particular niche. This may happen, but whether a journalist or a blogger is presenting the news, the standards must remain the same – prove you're presenting facts by citing your sources, or if you're posting unconfirmed information, then say so. It's not difficult, all you have to write is "This is unconfirmed but we have been told".
Charles was kind enough to provide me with a link to a video interview with Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke who claimed that facts are dead and now truth is based on opinion. There's certainly some truth to that, going by how some bloggers and journalists carry on. However, I cannot accept this. Perhaps it's because of my training. I was taught to write scientific literature, where you have to cite your sources, and make a logical progression to prove your argument. That forensic method holds true everywhere in life. Or at least it should – lest we regress to the days of trial by innuendo. Facts aren't dead as long as there are those who are prepared to uphold standards of objectivity rather than catering to the lowest common denominator (i.e. gossip etc.).
While many readers may not appreciate this principal, simply because they don't have time in their day to consider it, I believe that journalists and bloggers are in a position of responsibility and are obliged to uphold it. There's nothing wrong with thrilling rumours and titillating gossip as long as they are presented as such.
In the tech world especially, many readers come to us [writers] for factual advice on how to spend their money – they cannot afford for us to play fast and loose with the truth.
To conclude, I respectfully reject the notion that news is subjective and is only validated by the reader's desire to pass it on. News cannot have meaning if it is not an objective representation of facts, or at least a qualified appraisal of the best available data. Content of lesser integrity; i.e. leaks, rumours and gossip; still have a place, but must never be substituted as news.
If you have read this far, dear reader, thank you; and thank you for reading my technology column here on Blottr. All good things must come to an end, as has my time with Blottr. I'm sure the team have a great replacement lined up, and I'm moving on to other projects. If you want to keep up with what I'm doing, you can catch me on Twitter and my blog.
To everyone who has read, tweeted, or liked my material – thank you.