It was James Gordon Bennett, the editor of The New York Herald that said, “ Many a good newspaper story has been ruined by over-verification.”
This statement is particularly true in these days of online “journalism” where the rank amateur can rise to the heady heights of “journalism” without qualification, training or experience simply by creating a web site or a following on social media where they can gain a voice disproportionate to its value.
Now many may find this harsh, and even argue that journalism has been democratised by the internet. I would argue the opposite, it has been diluted and devalued. If we take as an example the local newspapers in Spalding, The Lincolnshire Free Press and the Spalding Guardian, they used to be a significant presence in Spalding employing local full time and part time professional journalists, photographers, advertising sales people and office staff. If we go back further in time they used to employ printers in Spalding. They were truly a “Free” press and “Guardians” of truth serving the local community. They engaged with and were members of the community upon which they reported. They still do this in a much-diluted fashion and very few people. Indeed, the nature of professional journalism is that much is done from a desk.
Of particular concern is how poverty is portrayed in journalism. Frequently what happens is that a political activist sets themselves up as a victim of poverty through a politically motivated machine. They create a press release which then exposes that victim to wider press. This gets enlarged and copied, largely on the internet, and even eventually appears as legitimate articles in the popular press. Now some of the journalists concerned will have “interviewed” the victim of poverty, but at best this is often done remotely. Because of the sensitive nature of poverty they do not dig too deep. When it comes to the genuine reporting of poverty in the United Kingdom I see very few George Orwells actually getting off their arses and meeting or living amongst the poor to really understand their situation. Perhaps the closest I have seen to this in recent times has been seeing the documentary of Ed Balls working with careworkers and Rory Stewart seeking to sleep overnight in ordinary people’s homes.
What has led me to this conclusion? I have seen several articles and interviews of people over the last two years where their words do not match their backgrounds. So, what I have done is trawl through reverse image searches, social media accounts, and online information searches and discovered several of these victims of poverty enjoying large homes, luxury cars and even expensive holidays. Over time you can even see the same people being used in different online articles. Over time they gain their own legitimacy without verification.
Now here is the difficulty that both the journalist and I share. If they have done background checks how do you challenge a person claiming they are a victim of poverty? I would strongly recommend you don’t as it can easily backfire. However, a proper journalist would investigate deeper into a person’s background and ask challenging questions. It also has to be recognised that people’s fortunes can change quickly, anyone that has experienced a house fire understands how quickly they can become homeless.
The difficulty with poverty is that it is invisible to many. Also, most often, the victims of poverty do not see themselves as victims, they just get on with their lives without seeking help or complaining about their lot. I have walked into good people’s homes and witnessed abject poverty and the people themselves would never consider themselves poor.
But the problem I have is that poor quality journalism is undermining the true face of poverty which has to be sought out properly and engaged with to be understood. All journalists should start by reading “Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell for inspiration before they are allowed to report on poverty.