Training or learning? There's a difference

‘We are all cheats now…”

That’s the theme many inside the broadcasting industry are applying to our intense self-examination of the limits of visual – and audio – artifice.

It’s not a great message for media educators to introduce young journalists and producers to. But it does highlight the key difference between ‘training’– a word I never use, incidentally, except in the garden and about roses, currant canes and espaliered fruit trees – and ‘learning”.

England’s dismal performance at the Rugby World Cup in France or the World 20/20 cricket in South Africa make the point. The Englishmen out there in both competitions have been ‘trained’to within an inch of their lives.

What they’ve lacked is ‘learning”. How to put together inert, mechanistic – ‘trained’– skills into an intelligent performance. Learning how to apply their ‘training’to the reality of totally novel situations. Because in sport, no challenge is ever exactly the same as any other.

It’s the same with journalism.

It isn’t about skills or ‘training”. It’s not about the speed of your shorthand or how you work the kit to edit pictures or sound. It’s about learning to apply a simple principle to complex and ambiguous situations. Telling great stories while remaining honest.

The artifice and contrivances of content production are in themselves neither honest nor dishonest, neither trustworthy or misleading. Context is everything.

That’s why opportunistic moves – like the Five News ban on ‘noddies”, ‘cutaways’and ‘reverse shots’– both increase the mistrust in TV and miss the point. Banning the corny bits of visual grammar used to cover an edit doesn’t make your edit honest in the first place.

A jump-cut, flash frame or frame match can still mark the point at which a savage assault on the integrity of journalism has been perpetrated.

I’ve spent the past three months speaking to hundreds of journalists and producers in every genre across the BBC, asking one question.

‘What did you do today that you think might be dishonest?”

In this parallel universe, all have been incredibly honest about their doubted honesty – and the list is a long one.

But it’s the so-called ‘Yentob noddy’– in which a cutaway shot of Alan Yentob was cut into an interview actually done by a producer – that has become the locus classicus in the whole debate. Clearly, that editing technique could never be acceptable in news or current affairs.

On my list of other techniques of art are such things as: making something happen but filming/editing as if it were spontaneous; filming on one timeline but editing on another; changing the order of events in the edit to build tension; dropping pointed and emotive shots into a visual narrative to indicate a point of view; personalising a natural history film – implying you’re following a single animal’s story when in fact you’re filming hundreds, each indistinguishable from the others.

None of these are dishonest in themselves – but the intention can make them so.

The ultimate judgement is the audience’s – so here’s my advice to young journalists. When you’re editing (or scripting for that matter), put an empty chair in the edit suite or somewhere where its (invisible) occupant can look over your shoulder. That’s the audience’s chair.

And when you wonder to yourself, mid-cut or mid-sentence: ‘Is this honest?’you know who to ask.

Kevin Marsh is the editor of the BBC College of Journalism

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