In My Opinion: Iain S Bruce: This is not a drill. The urgent need for transparency in our journalism

THIS just in: Journalism is a fundamentally arrogant, self-obsessed industry too wrapped up in its own legend to look at the world around it and adapt to sweeping change.

Or at least that’s what’s been interpreted as the view of US journalism professor, C.W. Anderson, whose new book, Rebuilding the News, lays a proportion of the blame for the ‘decline’ in the newspaper business on the hubris of traditional journalistic culture.

Anderson argues that industry-wide snobbery around emerging news tasks like blogging and link aggregation, together with the craft’s reluctance to take seriously or collaborate with non-traditional sources like social media, have prevented journalism from thriving in the digital age.

Up to a point, it’s hard to disagree. Clearly, journalism hasn’t exploited new technology to the extent that it could and should have.

But, aside from the trade’s enduring love affair with the printed word, there were sound reasons for exercising a cautious approach. To begin with, it’s hard to blame journalists for looking askance at the ‘blogosphere’. They are, after all, trained to be suspicious of any content that, in many cases, demonstrates scant regard for fact-checking, the right to reply or publishing law, knowing that if they did that they’d be dragged through the courts, pilloried or sacked. Maybe all three.

It is also true that many reporters have been reluctant to embrace social media. Given the fact that most journalists know readers as the people who ignore 99 per cent of the smashing work that they do (but write in demanding sackings for the slightest error or difference of opinion, however), this seems a fairly natural reaction.

It’s a given that journalism hasn’t reacted with alacrity to the digital era, but in a craft that’s hundreds of years old you’d often expect it to take a generation for fundamental change to be fully implemented.

When all’s said and done, the real reason for the ‘decline’ – at least in sales – is not because reporters don’t want to step up, but because the owners don’t want to ‘play ball’, invest in their core business and provide the sort of investment that quality journalism requires.

Contrary to jaundiced received opinion, the vast majority of today’s reporters are doing a good job against the odds. They are underpaid, overworked, have little room to manoeuvre and few opportunities to cover stories as deeply as they’d like.

The impeccable standards of in-depth reporting demanded by the social media pack are what they yearn for too, but they lack the investment needed to make it happen.

That said, there’s no denying that a credibility gap has opened, and journalism has to fight back and bridge it. They already have the communication, legal and investigative skills to do it, but, to apply them effectively, journalists are going to have to ‘grit their teeth’ and embrace the digital era.

If readers’ faith in the verity of reporting is waning fast, that doubt has to be confronted with line-by-line justifications of major stories, adding contextual pop-up notes explaining how the ‘tale was made’. Key facts need to be attributed, figures and statistics accredited and if sources are to be kept anonymous, we need to explain why. In the face of mounting cynicism, only total transparency can hope to counteract it.

Similarly, newspapers need to run experiments like submitting flagship online coverage to ‘wiki-style’ public audits, allowing readers to query and contest the reportage within. It could prove a problematic process, but when ‘the world and its wife’ is saying that modern journalism has been corrupted by self-interest, commercial bias and PR spin, only a balls-out, stand-by-our-stories approach is going to prove otherwise.

Like it or not, journalism needs to dip a toe into the impressive possibilities of employing data reporting techniques, experiment with social media and invent approaches to distributed journalism that carry reportage to readers beyond traditional web platforms – anything that might increase transparency, recapture the ‘high ground’ and demonstrate to the public what responsible, legal, skilled and engaging reportage consists of.

And without or without the help of media owners, it needs to be done soon.

This is not a drill.

Iain S Bruce is a former technology editor of the Sunday Herald, whose work has also appeared in several other national newspapers, including The Scotsman, The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. He is currently a director of the digital public relations agency, DPRi, and a regular commentator on BBC radio.