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Future journalism: Who asks difficult questions?

Is future journalism about quality, or quantity?

Yesterday, I discounted a story from my newspaper review on BBC Radio Manchester. Not because I didn’t think it was interesting. But because I wasn’t sure I could go on air and talk about it and not cause legal problems for me or for the BBC.

Online, I hope I can be suitably circumspect.

Challenging miracles

The story was about a woman in Manchester who has cancer. Her NHS doctors had told her there were no more steps she could take. So she and her family spent £150,000 on private treatment in Germany. They say this appears to be working well.

I’m no medical expert. But I do know that for all the NHS’s funding woes, in the UK we do a thorough job of assessing the validity of treatments. My first question, and I imagine that for many readers, was ‘Why isn’t this treatment available on the NHS?’ If it’s so efficacious, surely it would at least be considered. Maybe it’s still undergoing approval? Or maybe it has been rejected as completely bogus?

Amazingly, none of these questions were asked or answered in the article. Instead there was a link to the family’s fundraising page for people to donate. Because the follow-on treatments will cost tens of thousands of pounds more.

Now I shall pose this as a carefully worded question: What if this treatment isn’t valid? What if the doctors offering it know this? What if this is a money-making exercise preying on the most vulnerable people, suffering a terminal disease or facing the loss of a loved one?

The obvious questions

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a newspaper to ask those questions. Not when they are devoting most of a full page to such a story. Especially if they are to include a link asking people to give money that will ultimately go to the clinic in question.

This isn’t the first such story I’ve seen like this. It’s not the first I’ve seen from this newspaper. And it raises an important question. One the media industry has been struggling with for a few years now. In future journalism, who gets paid to ask difficult questions?

This isn’t just about the big investigations. The long, complex campaigns that are required to reveal issues like the expenses scandal or to extract meaning from the Snowden papers. This is about a standard of challenge that should be part of everyday stories. Not balance for balance’s sake but the asking of obvious, if difficult questions. Questions that add a required level of rigour to stories like this. Stories which carry a huge number of unknowns until those questions are asked.

Asking these questions isn’t cheap. Writing a story like this one without such challenges might be a matter of minutes. To consider and then research the questions above would turn this into hours. When the advertising or sales income from each might be the same, how can you commercially justify the investment of time that rigour requires?

Funding future journalism

If we want a media that seeks truth then we need to find ways to better fund future journalism. The advertising model is deeply compromised. We’ve had a major UK newspaper accused of heavy advertiser influence over editorial. Online the lines between editorial and advertising are so totally blurred that truth is often hard to discern. Subscriptions don’t seem to be holding up and paywalls are coming down faster than they go up.

Where does the money come from to pay for the expense of great future journalism? I think the answer comes in many parts.

Our Vectors of Change would suggest an increasingly diverse media in the future. A trend that has already been in evidence for some time and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Future journalism will likely be more small organisations than fewer large ones, though there are likely to be aggregators as part of the solution to the discovery problem.

These aggregators, whether they are search-based, or manually or automatically curated, may play a role in rating the quality of stories.

If the search and curation platforms decide to be sensitive to rigour in their rankings — and there is already evidence of this too — then in the long term, quality becomes a winning strategy for attracting traffic. And traffic means income. Right now this has meant a shift in parts of the media to ever-longer written articles. Check out some of the gadget reviews running to thousands of words.

The question is, will the income side of the equation justify the creation of true quality, or continued attempts to game the curation system? How do you assess the quality of news ‘bites’ versus long form pieces? Video, audio and pictures versus print? There’s a huge amount of human theory and machine intelligence to go into solving this problem.

 

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Tom Cheesewright