Our university librarian is always telling me that we are in the same business – that of managing information. Journalists and librarians search for, collect, assess and then make information accessible to a wider public.
But journalists also do something else with it. For good or ill, we filter it and turn it into stories that people – including those who would never be seen dead in a library – will want to read or hear.
We certainly have an awful lot of information to manage. A regional newspaper reporter was telling me the other day that he estimated he had written somewhere between four and nine million words in his career, and he is still going strong.
The average heavyweight national newspaper probably contains somewhere in the region of 100,000 words – a good book’s worth – every day. How many more appear online is anyone’s guess.
And that’s just the material selected for inclusion. Think how much more information will have passed before journalists’ eyes in the form of news releases, reports, surveys, agency copy and so on.
This process didn’t start with the digital age, but technology has sped up the flow immeasurably, just as many newsrooms have cut back on the human resources needed to make sense of it all – journalists.
Anyone training a journalist these days needs to learn how to access and, perhaps more crucially, assess information; how to get it fast yet, definitely most crucially, how to get it right.
That means realising there are other ways of searching than just Google – it includes weighing up the relative merits of information from different sources, and it involves asking yourself: ‘Is this likely?’It ought to mean actually reading and thinking about information, not transferring it directly from screen to reader.
So journalism students would do well to read coverage of the recent death of composer Ronnie Hazlehurst, whose main claim to fame was writing theme tunes for BBC television comedies in the Seventies and Eighties.
Some of our more heavyweight national media initially reported the unlikely fact that Hazlehurst had also co-written a hit for the pop group S Club 7. But he hadn’t. That erroneous ‘information’was inserted into the entry about the composer on the ubiquitous Wikipedia website.
How did it come to be reproduced by so many journalists? It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that somebody seems to have done a bit of cut-and-pasting – sorry, background research – and others have then lifted the ‘fact’from Wikipedia itself or, more likely, from another journalist’s efforts. All without double-checking.
We should encourage student and trainee journalists to improve their information literacy by learning some of the skills of the librarian in the digital age, including effective internet and database searching. But we must also nurture the natural scepticism of the journalist.
Sometimes all that is required is to turn away from the screen and ask aloud: ‘Does this sound right?’Then ask somebody who might know the answer.
Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist and teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield