#Fakenews and facts: Journalism in the age of Trump

Fake-NewsPresident Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.

Swan, who previously covered Australian politics for the Sydney Morning Herald (an affiliate of my newspaper The Australian Financial Review) has made a name for himself in Washington writing for American news website, Axios and interviewing major White House players like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to  President Trump.

Swan recently drew the wrath of the leader of the free world when he co-wrote an article on Axios this week that claimed President Trump wanted to “explore using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States”.

President Trump responded in characteristic fashion to a story that did not paint him in a very good light:

But Swan stood his ground, replying:

Axios doubled down on its defense of the story, with CEO and co-founder Jim Vandehei writing that the publisher stands solidly behind its reporting, which he said was “meticulously sourced”

“Since we published, additional sources have corroborated our account,” Vandehei added.

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Australian journo Jonathan Swan

Axios has as a key element of its ‘Manifesto’ – ‘Don’t sell BS’ and so stakes its reputation on always been accurate.

 

This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.

However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.

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President Trump 

However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with  FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.

 

The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.

A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.

However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.

Trump’s favourite FAKE NEWS targets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are broadly regarded as good sources of objective news, while those he admires and promotes, like Fox News (most of the time) have less then stellar track records on truth and objectivity.

It also got me thinking (based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues) about the reasons journalists make mistakes..

These I suggest are the main reasons good journalists sometimes make bad mistakes:

  1. Making incorrect or dubious assumptions
  2. Misreading or misinterpreting a document or pertinent piece of information
  3. Not verifying information supposedly from a supposed trusted source
  4. Not properly understanding the subject matter.
  5. Relying on poor sources for tip-offs and comments
  6. Poor judgement
  7. Tiredness, being rushed for time (a by product of the age we write in)
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First and final warning: The time I nearly got fired for doing my job

Recently, whilst browsing an old folder on an external hard drive, I came across a copy of a warning letter I received – my first and only one to date – almost 10 years ago.

I had completely forgotten about it, even though at the time it set off a boiling and bubbling rage inside me.

I received the warning three years into a stint at a publishing company in Sydney where I was then the managing editor of two mortgage broking titles.

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Up until then it had been a largely enjoyable job (and I still have mostly fond memories).

I ran a small team of reporters and there was a good collegiate atmosphere among fellow editors and journalists.

I did a fair bit of the writing and also penned a popular industry gossip column called Insider that put a satirical slant on some of the more colourful aspects of what was then a largely unregulated and lively industry.

Then one winter’s morning in early June it came as a great shock to be called into a meeting without any prior warning to be hauled over the coals and threatened with the sack.

Perhaps because I was so shocked and angry,  I don’t remember what was specifically said at the meeting.

The letter, which I had scanned and saved for some reason, filled in the blanks.

Beginning with a “first and final warning” management expressed its disappointment at my “editorial approach” on a “few recent occasions”.

In particular, there were concerns about two stories I had written in the Insider section “that explicitly criticised Westpac for poor customer service. These had been withdrawn at the last-minute”.

Similarly a reader’s letter which criticised St. George Bank “an advertiser” was pulled whilst another article which was critical of the Commonwealth Bank was altered lest it upset an “advertiser/sponsor”.

The last example related to PLAN Australia, a mortgage aggregator now part of National Australia Bank that advertised heavily in both publications.

The then CEO (with whom I’d had a good relationship with till then) complained to management after his company ranked poorly in a survey of them and their competitors.

Such was the outrage of this particular CEO that both the managing director and sales director had to fly to Melbourne to “smooth things over”.

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I suspect that it was after this trip, which I was entirely unaware of, that it was decided that I be set straight. Up untl then, no issues had been raised about how I put together the publications, or my management style.

The warning letter made the point a number of times that it was part of my role to “drive” or “fulfil” the “commercial objectives” of the publications.

As an editor and not a publisher or salesman, I understood this to mean to put together a quality publication that everyone in the industry read – not just dollop out flattering articles about advertisers.

In the past, there had been some tension between my somewhat idealistic notion that editorial and sales remain independent and the company view that advertising in the papers gave you a kind of protected status in its publications.

My view was that the publications attracted advertisers if they were well read and influential, not just by publishing fluff and drivel.

Perhaps there was some middle ground I didn’t see, but it was still greatly disappointing to me that the company had chosen not to defend a long-standing editor, but instead take the side of prickly banks and mortgage firms with their bulging cheque books.

In light of the Royal Commission finding into the financial services industry and the conduct of the banks, perhaps it is not that surprising that these financial institutions believed a bulging cheque book washed away all sins, an attitude that was seemingly not discouraged by my employer.

The outcome of both the verbal and written warning was that I was told to find “new angles and approaches” to stories or in some cases “avoid them entirely” (if presumably they were of a negative nature and involved an advertiser).

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To add insult to injury, my end of year bonus scheme which in the past had been based on meeting all my deadlines, something entirely within my control, was changed to one based on both publication’s hitting their “six monthly sales targets’ – a metric over which I had absolutely no control.

Surprisingly (well maybe not, I needed a pay cheque) I stuck around until March the following year,  when I left the company to go traveling with my wife, after we got married in January.

It’s interesting looking back on that day almost 10 years later in light of how my career has progressed, especially the last five-and-a half years, writing for a national newspaper (The Australian Financial Review), where editorial independence is taken for granted  – where journalists write stories and sales people sell ads. I believe that is the way it should be, in all cases. Publications that break that golden rule should disclose it to their readers, and not claim to be independent and objective reporters and observers..

The warning letter also triggered another memory.

In early 2011, back from a year travelling around the world and almost broke, I  was earnestly looking for full-time employment.

I put in a myriad of job applications for journalism roles, and was lucky enough to secure a few interviews including one with the publisher of an adventure magazine.

The interview was in one of those trendy converted warehouse in South Melbourne with the magazine’s publishers – an equally trendy man and woman duo.

I didn’t get the job – perhaps the publishers sensed I wasn’t really that enthusiastic about reporting on cross-country skiing  – but what I remember most vividly was a question I was asked.

It went something like this: Was I comfortable with the fact that the cover of the magazine was chosen, not by the editor or publisher, but by an advertiser?

Desperate for a job, I said I was, but my insides twisted into knots at the thought that this consumer magazine was essentially glorified advertorial, without of course telling paying readers that.

Looking back I am grateful I was never offered the role. I am also glad I stuck to my guns at my earlier role and tried to always report accurately and independently.

Hopefully readers appreciated it too.

 

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.