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Proactive Journalism: Taking Control of Flow of Information

 

Newsgathering

Lars Mollar

Many journalists simply sit and wait for the news to fly down on their desks via phone calls from open-mouthed colleagues or from press releases which they often conveniently publish without asking additional questions or even without rewriting anything. Likewise they pick up news from news agencies and other media, newspapers, radio and TV without checking the information given or without developing these pieces of news into new stories

Definition

Proactive newsgathering is taking control of the flow of information.

The media can take control with the flow of information on three stages:

  1. By conceiving their own story ideas
  • hunting up events for coverage
  • defining problems for coverage
  • setting the agenda
  1. By questioning the message of the sources
  1. By researching the causes, consequences and context.

All three presume that the journalists have the skills to conceive their own ideas, to interview and to research.

However, they also presume that the journalists have a proactive and critical attitude.

A proactive reporter is:

  • Using his eyes and ears to pick the first information
  • Is a curious person interested in getting information on good and bad in society
  • Has a nose for unjust activities or activities conflicting with the law/conflicting with good moral in Nepal
  • Is taking an initiative to produce news
  • Is a bit stubborn insisting to test if his or her ideas or the information collected prove to be correct and valid

The attitude of the journalist is important, especially when it comes to take an initiative to produce news.

Many journalists simply sit and wait for the news to fly down on their desks via phone calls from open-mouthed colleagues or from press releases which they often conveniently publish without asking additional questions or even without rewriting anything.

Likewise they pick up news from news agencies and other media, newspapers, radio and TV without checking the information given or without developing these pieces of news into new stories.

Reflecting news

Most easy news and most fast news are merely reflecting what happened: The journalist simply hold a mirror to the sources – or place a spot light on the event.  We talk about reflecting journalism.

Reflecting news are often build on only one source – it could be reflecting a speech by a politician, a press release, a press meeting, or any event.

Not all news stories answers every one of the 5W+H. Many reflecting news stories only answer “Who did what, where and when?” The very important Why? and How? do not arise in many brief news stories.

This kind of journalism, however, often leads to biased or even untrue information – because the source gives biased or untrue information.

Therefore the journalist should make it a rule to check the information as far as possible. The audience have a right to obtain not only spectacular news, but also true news, fair news and ethical balanced news.

And here starts the battle of the control of the flow of information.

Proactive journalism

When the journalist begins to check the news of the single source against other sources, we talk about another kind of journalism: Proactive journalism – it implies the initiative of the journalist and it often builds on more sources.

Even an easy story based on a press release will make better news, if the journalist defines his or her own angle.

This type of proactive journalism is our pride – because is based on the quality of our own work – research and check ups! The flagship is the investigative journalism, where the journalist by definition is revealing a systemic error by his research and on his own initiative!

En example from Dhulikhel: It might be easy to report that two cars crashed last night outside Hotel Mirabel.

It takes a thorough research to tell the true, confirmed and balanced story about why the cars crashed and who is to blame. Moreover it takes a difficult ethical choice to report and expose the victims’ suffering and – at the same time – trying to avoid abusing their privacy and dignity.

To reveal and document that the accident was caused by a systemic error e.g. lack of routine public control of cars, takes investigative journalism. The same if the accident was caused by a faulty construction of the road.

But without an aggressive and proactive press the audience will only have the official version of the truth – represented by the police – and definitely no systemic errors will be revealed.

The sources – conflicts in the flow of information

The flow of information runs:

  1. from the sources of the information
  2. via the media, who are processing the information
  3. to the listeners, viewers and readers of the information.

Inherent in this flow is a conflict of interest between the media and the sources: They both have an interest in controlling which information reach the audience.

The sources follow their own interest. The media follow the interest of their publisher – and more or less the “the public interest”.

How to get in the media?

First of all some powerful sources purposely try to initiate the flow of information.

In some cases they just have to call the editors or the journalists to get access to the media.

They can easily do that, if they somehow control the media. Then they can succeed getting any message in the media. This is a problem in a free press context.

If the sources are very popular or powerful in the society – like the King here or the American president – they also usually succeed to get their message in media. This is because the news criteria favour fame, so any peep from these guys will make news, even if it is of less public interest.

Since the news criteria also favour events, powerful sources often arrange events in order to attract the press, most often press meetings, but sometimes also more sophisticated happenings.

The sources may actually have a newsworthy message to present, when calling the media. If so, it is only in the interest of the audience, that the media cover their message.

The great problem is, however, if the media choose just to reflect the news – without making their own research or even questioning the sources.

PR, information officers and spin doctors

Today so many sources send press releases to the media. In Denmark a big paper receives more than a hundred press releases a day. In this sense it has become more difficult for the sources to access the media.

The press releases have to be very good and newsworthy. Therefore more and more sources employ professional information officers – often trained journalist.

They even employ spin doctors in order to take control of the flow of information. It is said that Tony Blair’s successful election campaign was organized by his spin doctor – webbing his spin by planting stories, framing news, creating hype.

However, the sources won’t succeed to take control of the flow of information – unless the media pick up their stories.

Damage control

In other cases the sources purposely try to avoid media attention. This is when the sources have done something wrong or stupid. By keeping quiet they may hope nobody discovers it. We may say, they try to control the flow of information by plugging up the very source of information – themselves.

However, the modern trend is that the powerful sources have become proactive. They presume the information will slip out sooner or later, so why not make a controlled leak. This is called damage control. Through this controlled flow of information they may try to minimize the damage, to camouflage the mishap or even to spread disinformation.

An example again is Tony Blair’s spin doctor, who made a very small press release on a government mishap, when the press was preoccupied with covering September 11. The press release drowned in the flow of information – but afterwards Blair couldn’t be blamed for trying to cover up.

Again, the damage controllers won’t succeed, if the media don’t buy it.

The audience – and symbioses in the flow of information

Inherent in this flow are also a symbiosis of interest – between the sources and the media.

The media and the sources need each other. The media are nothing without the sources. And the sources can’t get their message in the media without their cooperation.

However, due to the internet – and in the West free corporate and commercial publications – many sources can now by-pass the media as gatekeepers in the flow of information. The trend is, that the powerful sources to a less extend need the media to reach the audience.

Today, in the rich part of the global village, the audience is drowned by information. The competition about the attention of the audience is merciless, leaving the audience in a unique situation of choices.

On the other hand need the media its audience. The media are nothing without the audience.

The question is, if the audience needs the media, when the information can be found elsewhere on the internet and the many free publications?

Has the audience now – for the first time ever – a chance to take control of the flow of information?

As one response to this situation, many media in these years are moving focus from traditional elite news to audience-oriented news – such as public journalism and service journalism/news you can use.

Reawakening the classical standards of the profession

In these troubled times the media need professional, proactive audience-oriented journalists.

Otherwise we will experience a growing gap between the reality in the media and the real life of the audience, who will be left with irrelevant, half true or even untrue information.

In this way proactive news-gathering is challenging the professional identity of the journalists by reawakening the classical standards of our profession:

  • Proactive reporting is not a new journalistic trend – but more a set of values linked to the journalist-role and the working-method of the journalist in the modern society.
  • Proactive reporting is raising the standards of journalism – and is a real challenge to sleepy reporters producing journalism behind their desk far away from reality, society, everyday life of the people, who are in fact the target-group of the media, the audience of newspapers, radio and TV.
  • Proactive reporting is bridging the growing gap between media and audience.
  • Proactive journalism and high standard journalism IS ONE BIG FAMILY

The Author of the article Lars Mollar was associated with BBC iLearn Programme and University of Denmark

Image: Credit: Google 

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