What makes a good journalist anyway?

Sunday 21 October, 6.30pm until 7.30pm, Pit Theatre

Although the press has been vilified recently, we all understand the ideal of a good journalist. From the heroes of Watergate to the war reporter Marie Colvin, whose death this year made her a powerful symbol of brave investigation, those who fearlessly expose the truth are widely admired. Many young people still aspire to work in the media and journalism degrees are more popular than ever, often pursued by starry-eyed idealists. Of course, heroic reporting is not typical of what ordinary journalists mostly do. never mind illegal hacking; new ethical challenges and changing practices threaten the standards to which today’s journalists so rightly aspire.

When former Independent journalist Johann Hari was accused of plagiarism in 2011, what surprised many was his defence; he thought he’d done nothing wrong. To many, this exemplified a decline in journalistic standards. Rather than undergoing a thorough apprenticeship on local papers, a new generation of journalists is being recruited whose main experience is of blogs and social media. It seems anybody with an interesting enough blog or Twitter account can become an opinion former; the Huffington Post is one of the most influential political blogs around, while Techcrunch has even interviewed President Obama. So should bloggers be taken as seriously as those who have worked their way up through the ranks of national newspapers? If the next generation of intrepid investigators is to emerge from citizen journalism, who will train them (and pay them) to become real journalists? At the same time, the ideals of good journalism seem to have changed. Many journalists now see themselves as partisan campaigners, rather than objective reporters: War correspondents lead calls for humanitarian intervention; social affairs correspondents implicitly endorse or condemn particular policies; and science journalists can seem indistinguishable from environmentalist activists. Meanwhile, investigative journalism has been trumped by WikiLeaks-style revelations, with journalists apparently content to merely sift through leaked information.

Will the decline of the traditional business models of news gathering destroy the traditional values of reporting? If no one digs up the news at ground level, the high towers of scrutiny, comment, campaigning, investigation and the rest will crumble. And what does it take to really check facts and dig deep when the news has become a rolling process, updated live, 24/7? The internet and mobile technologies promise access to more news than ever, but we don’t yet like to pay for content. And while hostility towards one Labour MP’s call for journalist licences led to some hasty backtracking, is there a way of ensuring young reporters have high standards of journalistic integrity instilled in them?

Dr Andrew Calcutt
principal lecturer in journalism, University of East London; editor, Proof; co-author, Journalism Studies: a critical introduction

Coral James O'Connor
lecturer in broadcast & multimedia journalism, University of Brighton

Kevin Marsh
journalist; former editor, Today programme; former executive editor, BBC College of Journalism; author, Stumbling Over Truth

Sean Bell
secretary and founder member, The Brighton Salon; copy-editor, writer and journalist

Produced by
Sean Bell secretary and founder member, The Brighton Salon; copy-editor, writer and journalist
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