Mr Smith goes to Washington – but why?

Mr Smith might have gone to Washington, but he is increasingly unavailable for comment.

“Mr Smith declined to comment.”

“Mr Smith did not reply to queries by email.”

“We would rather not venture into that.” This last one was from the press officer at a university full of supposedly independent experts. None was willing question a governmental press release.

If press releases can’t be questioned, if elected officials won’t be interviewed and only issue statements, if Mr Smith won’t comment to the press, how can journalism exist? Is it even the same journalism anymore?

Increasingly, with lines blurred between reporting and comment, most high-profile individuals and official bodies (corporate, governmental or otherwise) know that they don’t need an independent press. They need merely issue statements, run campaigns and cater to followers who will agree with stated positions or campaigns before they even come out. The answers are prepared so questions don’t need to be asked.

News vs journalism

Artist in Residence Jason Skinner is exploring the difference between “news” and “journalism”, where news can sometimes just be a fragmented, quick summary, limited by particular mediums, versus the whole picture that journalism can offer.

Why should readers or the public care? The citizenry should always the institutions in society. They should also question the media and how much is or is not dictated to it by the institutions in society. It is too easy to compare press releases to news coverage in many markets. Sometimes those stories are minor and do not need much questioning. Others hide agendas or contradict positions.

As a news organisation, Tomorrow holds accuracy as a principle second only to our freedom to speak. That speech is harder to justify if inaccurate, and stories are less accurate if key parties don’t speak. But all the subsequent principles on our list require us to report. So, where is the cut-off point?

It is getting harder to get individuals to speak unless they feel in control of their own message. Years of media scandals have made that understandable. But a world where nobody answers questions will only breed a world where nobody asks them. That will suit many of those in power and those who are complacent (principle 5). But it does not suit the community. The comfortable in society want an unthinking citizenry. If nobody asks questions, if nobody is allowed to asks questions, everyone switches off.

On a practical level, for each story, Tomorrow must determine the point at which a story is accurate enough to run.

Too many media outlets, assuming a public lust for immediacy, will run without all facts or all sides of a story. Alternatively, no news organisation should wait forever.

Most recently, a key organisation has not replied to phone calls or emails requesting comment. After four weeks without answer, Tomorrow must now find alternative voices that will, and acknowledge in the story that “XYZ did not reply to requests to comment”. Our readers must then decide if that means something is being hidden and the story is less accurate, or whether they should bring their own citizenship to bear upon that organisation.

Reporters can ask questions and offer the community the answers or non-responses, as the case may be. But ultimately that same community also needs to ask questions and recognise the benefit of everyone sharing views and facts for the betterment of that community.

Tomorrow doesn’t tell readers how or what to think – we want you to ask questions just as we ask questions, and get answers.

It’s fine for Mr Smith to issue a press release that he’s going to Washington, but sometimes he will need to answer the question from both reporters and the public: “Why?”

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