One of the more bizarre aspects of being a reporter on a national magazine is getting requests from research students asking for help with their degrees. With the ever-growing amount of journalism MAs being studied these days, Press Gazette reporters are often asked if they can contribute to some thesis on ‘why newspapers are dying’ or ‘the influence of celebrity culture on blah blah’.
Whenever possible I try to help. Even the badly-worded, mass-emailed questions get a response, if only to send out a message that if students want a good answer, they should ask good questions.
To demonstrate the dilemma we often find ourselves in – whether to help, whether to ignore – this is what an MA student from City University, asked me via email:
Sent: 06 August 2008 16:28
To: Patrick Smith
Subject: question for my dissertation
Dear Patrick Smith,
I am an Italian journalism student in London. I am writing my final dissertation on the Treaty of Lisbon, and I would like to ask you a couple of questions about it. I really hope you can find five minutes to give me a short reply, I would really need an expert’s point of view about this.
1) Do you think that the issue of the Treaty of Lisbon (and what it represents for the UK) has been covered well in the British press?
2) Do you think there were any biases (in favour or against) in the way some newspapers have reported it, and in general, in the way they report EU-related issues?
I really hope you can reply. If you prefer, I could contact you by phone. Thank you in advance for your cooperation and your time.
So far, so vague. As my followers on Twitter will know, I didn’t really get the point of this. It was committing one of the major sins in asking for expert opinion: (apart from asking someone who isn’t really an expert) it’s asking the interviewee to write the whole thesis. So I wrote:
I’d like to help but your questions are far too vague. Both questions 1 and 2 really require a lot of research to fully answer and I don’t have the time. How do you define “covered well?” What do you mean by “British press”? Do you mean national papers, regional papers or both?
The press’s coverage of Europe is a fairly complex area and certainly one worth investigating – but you will get more of an answer with more targeted questions. If there’s anything specific I can help with please get back in touch.
I thought that would be the end of it. But no, within the hour our man wrote back:
Sent: 07 August 2008 16:37
To: Patrick Smith
Subject: RE: question for my dissertation
I am sorry that I was not clear enough with my questions. I will try to re-write them and be more specific.
1) When I say “covered well”, I mean: when British newspapers covered the Treaty of Lisbon, were they covering it properly in terms of knowledge and insight of the issues (highlighting what would have changed, what would have not, what was happening day after day in Brussels and so on)? Or were they (at least some of them, mainly the tabloids) simply taking an anti-EU stance no matter what, and taking advantage of every possible occasion to criticise EU politicians and highlight that Britain had to stay “out of this”? (and if so, weren’t they forgetting the journalistic need to balance
sources, even if you do not agee with them?)
For example The Sun ran a campaign asking for a referendum, highlighting the fact that Gordon Brown had promised it. But they never highlighted that it was extremely difficult to ask people to give an overall opinion over a 400 and something pages long document, nor they allowed too many pro-EU commentators in their interviews.
2) when I say, “British press”, I mainly talk about the NATIONAL newspapers, and in particular I wanted to ask you if you noticed any difference between tabloids and broadsheets in terms of coverage. The impression that I had was a very negative journalistic performance in some tabloids (which were simply shouting NO to the EU), whereas there was more insight and attention in the case of national broadsheets (although with some differences, for example the Telegraph sounded more anti-EU than the others, and the Guardian seemed timid when it came to take a clear stance).
What impression did you have (just in general terms, I am not looking for a very deep insight)?
Hope I have clarified a little more what I meant. Thanks in advance for your help.
Fair enough, he came back with better questions. But, I was quite annoyed with his inherent liberal bias in his questions – i.e. anyone that opposed Lisbon is a bad journalist. This is a common theme in many students’ questions and as someone who covers the full spectrum of British papers, it often unnerves me. So I replied:
From: Patrick Smith
Sent: 07 August 2008 18:23
Subject: RE: question for my dissertation
Well done for getting back to me so fast. My answer:
1. It’s impossible to say whether they were covering it properly – it’s an entirely subjective question, and it depends what you mean by properly.
The Sun took an anti-EU stance and its editorial content was of course influenced by the paper’s proprietor, its editor and probably the majority of its audience – all of which are traditionally Euro-sceptic.
Personally, I have no problem with a newspaper taking a line on an issue and writing stories based on that. Left-wing people only dislike The Sun’s propagandising because they don’t agree with it. You could hardly accuse great left-wing journalists like Robert Fisk or John Pilger of being particularly impartial in some of their most famous work – which is what makes it so powerful.
On the question of balance – journalists have to be fair and accurate: they have to report the world as it is, report people saying what they say. But the combination of news and opinion is as old as journalism itself. It is the job of newspapers to “criticise politicians” or at least hold them to account.
The Independent campaigned strongly in favour of the treaty and ran several front pages (one lifted from an EU Commission press release) urging readers to support it, but they are not mentioned in this debate of EU bias.
And, to be fair to The Sun, their reporters write news and opinion in clearly labelled boxes in the paper, so readers know which is which.
2. I’m afraid I don’t understand this. You seem to equate good journalism with supporting the treaty, which doesn’t make any sense. And if you read The Guardian’s leader column it came out in favour of the Treaty I seem to remember. Just because they don’t splash their views on their front pages doesn’t meant the broadsheets don’t have an opinion on the issue.
I hope that can be of some help. I might also suggest that you ask even more specific questions, you are still being quite vague. Surely the issue is WHY is Murdoch so anti-Europe? Why is he so pro-China? Could it be that he has business interests in China to protect and promote?