The Future of Real Journalism

Social Media and Witchcraft – time for an industry standard?


Trawling aimlessly through my Twitter feed it occurred to me that it often has a lot in common with the Lancashire witches – a group of hapless, poverty-stricken women who were hanged in 17th century northern England on the basis of repeated gossip, allegations, rumors, a vengeful judge and the demands of the baying mob.

The more they protested their innocence, the more widespread became the myths and the gossip, and the more fact became confused and merged with the saucier fiction. 

We could give it a contemporary buzz-phrase such as “malicious crowd-sourcing” or “judicial trolling” but the message is the same – truth can be as elusive a commodity today as it was then.

My journalism students often wonder what a journalism degree is worth these days, when anyone with an Amazon discount code can buy a digital camera and drive to a riot zone to make a dangerous name for themselves on CNN.

So together we came up with a list of attributes which might separate “real” journalists from the mob. I’m sure readers can add to the list.

Real journalists can distinguish their work and bring success to their organizations:-

  • By acquiring ALL the skills necessary to create and contribute to all types of platforms

  • By taking careful notes and recordings and keeping them

  • By being first hand witnesses to events, vigorously questioning any derivative versions  

  • By standing for truth, accuracy and diversity before speed

  • By building credibility as tellers of significant stories

  • By having trusted, first-hand sources and extensive contacts

  • By building expertise, knowledge and experience in chosen beats

  • By rising above the “noise” to report fact, not rumor or hearsay

  • By remaining neutral and emotionally detached from their subject

It may seem a quaint notion, but is it time to restore credibility to the profession by having a nationally (or internationally) recognized qualification as a journalist?

A central body could administer the standards for J-Schools and training colleges to meet. Qualifiers would carry a professional card or license to show to law-enforcement officers, at news conferences, and other public events. Card-holders could assert their credentials online, or in print, to emphasize their trustworthiness to users and readers. Cards could be withdrawn for inaccurate or irresponsible reporting, plagiarism, and other ethical breaches.

News organizations who only employed card-holders, and genuine freelancers,  could increase their credibility and enhance their reputation as trust-worthy custodians of truth and reliability.

Call me old-fashioned? The Lancashire witches could have done with some independent observers who sought the truth. The first draft of history prevailed then, as it does today. But with all the tools of discovery and dissemination of news now at our disposal, shouldn’t we be doing more to get it right?


Mark McDonald

August 2015