investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

My life as a journalist: a confession

In Academic reflection on April 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm

A Public Self-Criticism

Early in my professional development I stood on the True Path that led to the Higher Purpose of Academia. I was young and my instinct was to seek to serve that Greater Good and its Pursuit of Truth. But I was weak.

One day, I came to a fork in the road: on one side the path continued towards Glorious Truth; on the other lay the cracked and crooked road to Journalism. I was tempted, and I succumbed.

When I stepped off the true path I left behind the History and Philosophy of Science; the great, unmined riches of the Annals School of History; and the unfathomable depths of a thousand schools of Chinese thought. Pursuing these interests might have filled ten lifetimes with intellectually rigorous investigation. Instead, I was drawn into a false and superficial world populated by shifting shadows, moveable ethics and impure motives.

I convinced myself that Journalism had value and that by practising it I could serve a Public Good. For more than 20 years I believed I was serving the ideal of Quality Journalism by applying the noble art of Research to inform a knowledge-thirsty readership. But my eyes were recently opened to the Glorious Truth by the Honourable institution of RMIT and the School of Media and Communication.

Thanks to the re-education I received while absorbing the clarifying philosophy of Professional Research Methods and Evaluation I now understand the enormity of my crimes. As a journalist I perpetrated a fraud on the people and institutions that trusted me: my family, my colleagues, the Honourable Public and even Democracy itself. What I did was not Research. At its least damaging it was a shallow pretence; at its worst an evil approximation that distorted Truth and misled weak and gullible readers unwittingly indoctrinated by the tricks and deceptions of the mainstream media.

The “research” perpetrated by journalists is an abasement. Mainstream journalism uses a catch-all approach to gather “facts”, crudely meshing them with the words of “experts” and/or “witnesses” (usually obtained at short notice, via the telephone, with no opportunity afforded for reflection or consideration!) and publishing them under the constraints of time, space and relative importance in a news agenda defined by commercial parameters. Mostly it is primary material, occasional “informed” by secondary sources. But it is almost always dashed off, stitched together to last just long enough for the next news cycle to sweep it away. Thus is worship of Objectivity and Eternal Truths slyly and carelessly supplanted by the creeping menace of Subjectivity and Ephemeral Interest, a process rarely admitted to by the perpetrators.

Driven by commercial imperative, most mainstream media rely on and also take advantage of weaknesses in human psychology. Like bowerbirds, we are compulsively attracted to shiny things; like kittens we cannot look away when something intriguing catches our eye. Thus coverage of even the most serious issues – those “boring” but worthy subject areas that deserve deep and considered analysis – must compete with the populist appeal of sport, manufactured political soap operas or the birth of an achingly cute baby elephant at the local zoo.

True Knowledge does not lie on the ground in convenient nuggets to be picked up and thrown in a sack, then taken to the market place and turned into bankable cash by the seller of metals. Yet this is what the media do. It is what I once did. The glittering clumps the media gather are Fool’s Gold – Fool’s Knowledge, you could say – useful to catch the light for a moment to attract the easily amused, or be used to decorate the fringes of some item of passing popularity, fadsome concerns alien to Deeper Understanding.

True Research takes time. It requires structure, careful thought, rules and parameters of practice to ensure consistency of application so that standards are maintained across and within all fields of Academic Inquiry. Standards are correctly kept high and maintained by the selfless gatekeeping process of Peer Review. The sacred mantra of “Problem Context Method and Outcome” is a beacon to Illuminate Truth. Journalism’s guiding trope of ”Who What When Where How and Why” suggests a fine ambition but it is one that always falls short because it is inconsistently applied and too easily bent out of shape such as to be useless.

I confess to such practices and confess to being a ringleader. As an editor at The Age I recruited and groomed others to similarly debase their intellectual energies.

For this, and for all my crimes against True Academic Research while a member of the Gang of Mainstream Media, I am ashamed and I apologise.

Signed …

  1. Is the only way to conceptualise the difference between academic and journalistic research the true and the false? (even with tongue in cheek…) who else has written about this?


    • Clearly it’s not the only way to conceptualise that difference, but I think there a difference in the depth of understanding each enterprise (journalism, academia) generally brings to an issue, debate or field of study.
      I’m not a believer in ultimate truths, just the capability/hope/value of the aim to approach them (once you’ve decided on a direction in which a “truth” lies — and that can be an arbitrary choice).
      I feel a thesis chapter coming on.


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