BY JOHN SPEAK
The best books…are those that tell you what you already know.”
George Orwell wrote these words in 1949, the days of ink on paper. He could have been writing about today. We have never had a wider range of news and information available to us. Free from having to print on paper, pundits from anywhere can be read everywhere on the globe. As the vast range of information available spreads to all corners of the web, proponents of online journalism claim we have never had more information at our fingertips.
Filter bubbles narrow our journalistic view
Sadly, the truth is our sampling of this information is often narrow. In an op-ed article in the New York Times, columnist Nicolas Kristof refers to this as “The Daily Me”. He tells of web users tailoring their viewing to match their views, refusing to be challenged or questioned. Even search engines now tailor their results to suit our tastes. Journalist Bryan Appleyard discusses this in an article describing how web users past browsing habits are used as templates by search engines to provide them content. As Eli Pariser, the web activist behind the concept of the filter bubble puts it “The Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”
Writers too can suffer from this. It is easy for writers to present a personal viewpoint, backed by carefully selected quotes or links, as fact. The web is full of opinion. Qualified and unqualified, researched or kneejerk. Mining this information can provide writers with anything from new facts to crazed conspiracy theories. Using this material can provide writers with an almost endless source of copy. But is it good for journalism?
Keeping your articles balanced
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having opinions. We become journalists in the first place because we are interested in what is happening in our world. When we sit down to type, we often use a personal view as a starting point. This doesn’t mean that we need to be propagandists. Our task is to find information, understand and report it. So, what can we do to maintain integrity and balance in our work? Here are four things to remember when we sit down at our keyboards.
Four ways to remain neutral in your writing
- Balance. Always consider all sides of an issue. Even if you have an opinion that you are trying to sell to your readers, don’t neglect those with opposing views; always be prepared to acknowledge any valid points they may have.
- Honesty. If, in the course of your research, something you have always taken as fact is disproven, be big enough to take this on board.
- Scope. We are told writing for the web is different to writing for print. Shorten, chunk, repeat is the mantra. Don’t use this as an excuse to scrimp on research. Make sure you know the subject before you write- and don’t omit key points to save space.
- Research. The flip side of a wider audience for web-based news is the ability of this widespread audience to critique your work. Instantly. Ensure you have your facts straight, and can back up what you are writing.
The internet can be many things at one time. Not just a vast storehouse of knowledge, but also a repository of bile and ignorance. It is our duty as journalists to put aside our personal views, to sift through the trash in order to present fair, accurate and honest work. If our readers are not willing to be challenged, we must be on their behalf.
About the Author
John Speak is a Wellington based chef and writer, with a love of food, travel and words. Something of a latter-day Luddite, John likes to consider how new technologies affect our lives, often writing from a somewhat skeptical viewpoint. Nothing makes him happier than a glass of fine wine; a good meal and complaining how much better things were in the good old days.