Dealing with research students – should you give an answer?

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.
Best Regards,

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.

Patrick Smith

I thought that would be the end of it. But no, within the hour our man wrote back:

—–Original Message—–
Sent: 07 August 2008 16:37
To: Patrick Smith
Subject: RE: question for my dissertation

Dear Patrick,
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:

—–Original Message—–
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?

Patrick Smith



5 responses to “Dealing with research students – should you give an answer?

  1. No. You should do what you are doing, which is blog about the things that mater to you, and leave them to find that and quote you. That way you are doing much more than 90% of UK journos who don’t share their opinions outside their paid medium.

  2. Good on you for taking the time to respond, Patrick. I remember seeing emails sent out by fellow students at Lincoln and thinking “Gee… I’d stick that straight in the junk folder.”

    I think if I were in your position, I wouldn’t have taken the time to answer Antonio’s questions. Not because Antonio did anything wrong — his email is very well structured, and has good tone — but because I’m sure you’d be the first to admit you’re not an expert on the Treaty of Lisbon. Smacks of lazy research to me.

    When I was writing my dissertation about uses of anonymous sources in the UK media, I contacted two people: Nick Davies and Andrew Gilligan.

    Now the trick, I found, was to ask them questions that I knew only they could answer. And I imagine that they were aware of this too. When interviewing Nick Davies, I made reference to Flat Earth News. When interviewing Andrew Gilligan, I made my questions specific to the David Kelly case, and the role of anonymous sources in it.

    They are experts. Real experts. I’d question Antonio’s dissertation’s worth if his experts aren’t really experts at all.

    So I think the answer to your question is yes — but only if you’re the person to answer them. You have many areas of expertise in the media, it would be a shame to have a one size fits all approach to answering student queries.

  3. patricksmithjournalist

    Dave, I remember how hard it was getting through to anyone as a student so I entirely empathise with anyone trying to pass a journalism degree.
    But you’re right – I’m not an expert on the EU. I might be knowledgeable about the UK press and journalism in general, but on EU issues I know what I read in the press and what I remember from the NCTJ public affairs exam.
    Maybe I’m not the person to answer Antonio’s questions – but I hope he finds it useful anyway.
    I asked Antonio’s permission before publishing his questions and my response – and hopefully his research will benefit from a public airing.

  4. Dear Patrick,

    thank you for posting our discussion. I have to say that I noticed a couple of interesting things from it (maybe I will try and write these aspects in my thesis too).
    First, I noticed a big difference in “sectorial” knowledge that one can find among journalists in different countries.
    I mean, if you ask an Italian journalist a question like the one I asked you, he or she would be able to answer it quite easily, without being “an expert” on the subject. Maybe it is because we have been in the EU for longer, maybe because our papers and TV are full with EU-related news and this means that everyone, even the man in the street, has a basic idea of what the EU is, and I believe many would be able to say what the Lisbon Treaty is, too. My old uncle, for example, would know it.
    I guess it is the same as asking a British journalist his or her opinion about the coverage of Gordon Brown-related stories in the press. I am sure you would be able to tell me lots of things about how he is portrayed in the British media, without necessarily being an expert in politics.
    So maybe, it is just a matter of what journalists in different countries know in terms of “general knowledge” and “sectorial knowledge”.
    What do you think about this? (and no, I am not asking you to write my thesis now nor I did it before. I have to write it, and I am quite happy of doing it, because I chose this topic and I quite like it. But maybe, from your answers or someone else’s answers, I could find something useful, some more ideas on how to develop it).



  5. patricksmithjournalist

    I must say firstly that I’m enoying the chance to debate with you on this and thanks for letting me make some of these issues public. Sorry if I sounded so critical first time round – you have picked an interesing topic and one worth investigating.
    And, your point about British people – and British journalists – not understanding the EU is perfectly true. The EU is a vast and complex thing and is not taught in schools.
    As Nick Davies says in Flat Earth News (which if you haven’t read, you really should) there are certain assumptions made in newspapers that go unchallenged. For some newspapers that the EU is a “money-wasting” cabal of bureaucratic, unelected “Eurocrats”.
    I’ll be honest – your uncle probably knows more about it then me, and I had to pass an exam on it to qualify as a reporter. Indeed the “experts” on the EU are in unversities and I might suggest, not always working for newspapers.
    We are a very closed-in country and no doubt that shows up in our Euro coverage. A good study for your thesis would be to compare Italian and British coverage of the Treaty.
    And you should if you can attempt to disprove stories that you don’t think are true – newspapers get it wrong, they exaggerate wildly and they often do it to make a point they always set out to make. How much of the British press coverage of Lisbon was accurate?
    Ideology plays a big part in British journalism. People don’t buy newspapers to make money in the main, they do it to have influence over something. Newspapers like the Mail or The Sun – while I don’t see anything wrong with this – will only write anti-EU stories. The Guardian and Independent will be more inclusive and positive about EU enlargement.
    But I think the central point of my reply to you was that to be anti or pro-Europe are both valid journalistic positions. Britain does stand to lose some of its sovereignty if the theory behind Lisbon is taken to its logical conclusion – and that should be worrying to right and left wing people.
    Could it be that Italy has more coverage of the EU because it is more likely to benefit from it? And therefore would British scepicism be justified?
    I hope you find some of this useful – and that you get a good mark!

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