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Lise Hand: 'Journalism matters. And this week has been a crucial reminder of that'

“Behind every headline, at the heart of the story but not part of the story, are journalists.”

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

ON THURSDAY EVENING, there was a thud surely audible above-stairs in the circling ISS as the nation’s jaws collectively hit the floor when the Irish Examiner broke the gobsmacking story of the Clifden 82.

It was a classic scoop by the newspaper’s political correspondents Aoife Moore and Paul Hosford and it took flight instantly, sparking on one hand understandable disbelief, distress and incandescent rage from the public and on the other, swift acts of contrition and (some) resignations by the public figures who had somehow thought it grand to fly in the face of Covid restrictions and basic common decency and saunter along to a hotel for a golf hooley.

Golfgate was the second big news story within a week to capture the public’s attention; only seven days earlier the country was riveted by that rare gem – a potential tragedy which instead had a happy ending.

Avid for any glimmer of good news, people hungrily consumed every detail of the
uplifting drama of the nigh-miraculous rescue of Galway paddle boarders Sarah Feeney and Ellen Glynn by local fishermen, father and son Patrick and Morgan Oliver after the women were missing at sea for 15 hours.

They were of course two very different sorts of news stories; the latter was a human life-or-death drama.

Covering such stories – particularly when lives hang in the balance or lives have been lost, when emotions are running sky-high and when events are still unfolding – is a tightrope act which cannot be taught in journalism school.

Other times – as happened on Thursday evening – it’s a journalist who breaks a story which stops everyone in their tracks and which has immediate or eventual consequences for individuals, organisations and, occasionally, for governments.

Such scoops rarely fall out of the sky – though to be fair, sometimes being in the right place at the right time does the trick. But as a general rule journalists land stories through a combination of extreme nosiness, an extensive network of contacts and a reputation for trustworthiness.

An investigative yarn can detonate immediately as did Golfgate, or the end result may be the product of dogged, painstaking and time-consuming trawls through elusive documents and obfuscatory red tape.

Yet stories have one element in common: behind every headline, at the heart of the story but not part of the story, are journalists.

The future

But while all might look rosy in the garden of the fourth estate, it most certainly is not.

The traditional news industry is in a parlous state.

When newsrooms emptied in March due to Covid-19 requirements to work from home, in many cases the difference was barely discernible.

Tumbleweed was already rolling among deserted desks in local, regional and national media organisations struggling to adapt to the technology-driven seismic shifts in how news is produced and consumed, and impoverished by the mass diversion of crucial ad revenue to media giants such as Google and Facebook.

And that’s bad news for everybody, not just the dwindling denizens of the fourth estate.

A weakened, diminished media only benefits authoritarians, autocracies, powerful entities and individuals in high places with filing-cabinets rattling with skeletons.

It’s a global problem. In the US, newsrooms have shed half their staff in the past decade – a loss of about 27,000 jobs. Within the past year in Ireland, almost every media organisation has announced redundancies or pay-cuts; in the past six weeks in the UK, hundreds of newsroom jobs have been axed at the BBC, the Guardian and the Evening Standard.

And all too often the workers hustled towards the exit are senior, experienced reporters and sub-editors, taking with them a lifetime of cultivated contacts and a hinterland of knowledge about how the courts, the councils, the parliaments all operate, and an understanding of context when it comes to events and news.

Local media

Fewer journalists and the disappearance of local publications means that face-to-face interaction between journalists and communities is diminished. Citizens now vent online, while journalists confined to cash-strapped newsrooms talk to politicians, lobbyists, spin-doctors, and to each other via various echo chambers on social media.

But news organisations aren’t wholly at the mercy of outside forces, and many bad decisions were implemented in recent years. Frantic to hop aboard the charging online express, management in many news companies simply swept out the older, experienced and better-salaried newsroom staff, canned many of the regional reporters and slashed budgets relating to the crucial and time-consuming business of following a lead.

Woefully understaffed, news desks stopped sending reporters to cover in person the nuts-and-bolts stuff such as council meetings where traditionally young reporters find new contacts and sniff out stray stories.

Equally egregiously, journalists became dismissively referred to as ‘content providers’ and found themselves constantly reacting to the news cycle rather than determining the arc of it, stuck in a job which no longer allowed them the ‘luxury’ of spending time pursuing an investigation for an unspecified length of time to an uncertain end.

Not every investigation will yield results.

But some will in spades.

The irony of journalists finding themselves in the position of reporting on how other sectors such as healthcare are plagued by being top-heavy with middle-management high earners while sustaining low pay, precarious terms of employment and stressful conditions of frontline workers tends not to be lost on those same reporters.

No wonder many excellent journalists have left the business. There are plenty of talented young journalists rising in the industry, but whether they remain in it is another matter.
Because there’s also irony to be found in an industry which regularly deplores the lack of diversity and gender balance in, say, Irish politics, when this country’s media organisations are seriously deficient in both.

There’s a lamentable paucity of women at managerial/executive level (TheJournal.ie being an exception, with women filling the majority of the key roles), and a dearth of ethnic and socio-economic diversity.

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As the most extraordinary of news days unfolded on Friday, it was striking to hear the voices of so many women broadcasters presenting every show on RTÉ radio, from Rachael English and Caitriona Perry on Morning Ireland, through Sarah MacInerney, Katie Hannon on Liveline, Áine Lawlor and Claire Byrne on the News at One and Mary Wilson on Drivetime.

And each and every one of them nailed it. What a pity that the top brass running many of the country’s independent commercial radio stations think gender balance on air is an irrelevancy.

Theories

Journalists aren’t perfect; they are frequently messy and usually paid-up members of the awkward squad. Like any trade or profession it has its share of asshats and attention-seekers. Some have axes to grind and others have political agendas, but the majority simply go about the business of poking their noses into places which interested parties prefer would remain nose-free. 

But neither are members of the so-called ‘mainstream media’ in the pay of George Soros or them pocket of the establishment, as social media’s current crop of nattering nabobs of negativism – the tricolour-waving Corrupt Kippers – incessantly proclaim.

On a related note, the news industry urgently needs to tool up for looming titanic battles against ever more sophisticated and well-funded promulgators of fake news, the contagion of anti-vaxxers and deluded disciples of Qanon-style conspiracy theories which are as preposterous as they are pernicious. Covid-19 caused by 5G masts, anyone?

Media coalitions such as First Draft are leading the charge in providing newsrooms with new weapons of investigation into the wilder regions of the internet. But this is a fight which needs government backing.

The political establishment has caught a lucky break so far, in that the native alt-right groups have yet to produce credible or charismatic figures to rally more people to their
spurious causes. But that luck will run out for sure, and probably sooner rather than later.

Journalism matters. And this week has been a crucial reminder of that.

Over 40 years ago, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein offered the starkest demonstration of why journalism matters when their dogged pursuit of a story led to Watergate and the downfall of a US president.

Commenting on The Washington Post’s coverage in the face of ferocious opposition from the Nixon administration, Katherine Graham, the newspaper’s proprietor said, “If we had failed to pursue the facts as far as they led, we would have denied the public any knowledge of an unprecedented scheme of political surveillance and sabotage.”

There is a line connecting Watergate to Golfgate, and it’s been drawn by journalism. Whether that line remains unbroken into the future is another story altogether.

voices

About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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