Bad journalism shame file #2

In a recent piece for The Age, a management expert writes about the difficulties faced by foreigners working in Australia. One of the main themes is how to “fit in” with the locals (for want of a more neutral expression). This piece was written for “My Small Business”, a low-key special interest section of the newspaper. It’s fairly innocent stuff.

What strikes me is the author’s casual use of the word “assimilation” and the apparent assumption that foreigners should “assimilate”. This word is used flippantly and is often interchanged with the word “adapt”. Without wanting to get into any arguments about multiculturalism, I get the impression that the author simply has not turned his mind to the connotations associated with a word like “assimilation”, or perhaps even the basic meaning of the word. He seems to be ill-equipped to write on this particular topic, both linguistically as a writer and as a commentator on any sort of cultural issue. This is especially so in the context of a mainstream Australian newspaper; Australia is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups and certain aspects of immigration policy are among the most emotional and divisive political issues facing Australians.

Of course, no one expects fluff pieces on small business topics to be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism. No one expects entrepreneurial or management types to be poets with language, either. Business people have a job to do, and it doesn’t include sitting around pondering the nuances of language. That task is, however, one of the imperatives of being a professional writer. Regardless of the subject matter at hand, anyone authoring a piece for syndication by mainstream media should have a firm understanding of language and be very good at using it.

Part of the problem is obviously that many writers who are now syndicated by mainstream online media are simply bloggers who may or may not have any formal qualifications in journalism. I have chosen not to explicitly name the author of this piece because I feel it is unfair to single him out.

Possibly, a bigger problem lies in the presentation of online media.  Once upon a time, such special features were physically separated from the news or opinion sections of a mainstream, hard copy newspaper. If they weren’t part of a pull-out supplement, they were at least presented within a discrete section and had their own format. It was very clear that they weren’t news or commentary and weren’t to be taken too seriously.

That distinction is lost to a large extent in the world of online news media. This is partly because of the aesthetic layout of these sites; although this article is posted under the banner of “My Small Business”, its layout is, in every other material respect, identical to that of a major opinion piece by a senior journalist.

The distinction is also being eroded in the way these pieces are promoted by news sites, and readers’ approach to these pieces as a result. Some major news websites such as The Age are now presented such that any piece, whether it be news, opinion, editorial or fluff feature, can equally be tweeted, “Recommended” or feature in the “most clicked on” statistics. What tends to result is a conflation of these into one single concept of news media. I don’t believe this concept really has a name yet, but many people call it “news”.

This conflation is not helped by the cult that is reader commenting. The Age does not allow comments to be posted on just any piece; it appears to have a discretionary policy about which items are opened for comments. What is notable is that fluff features like this one often invite comments, just as news and opinion pieces might. What The Age effectively signals is for you to please comment on this, as you would on a serious editorial. In other words, please think about this article, as you would about a serious editorial.

Consider a child who is growing up using the internet and reading online media. In that child’s entire lifetime, his or her parents might have never bought a single hard copy newspaper and the child might have no appreciation of the traditional differences between news, opinion and special interest features. How does that child evaluate what he or she is reading online? What are the consequences when that child reads a silly fluff piece by a non-journalist who stupidly presumes that foreigners must “assimilate”? I shudder to think.

It’s not even the next generation we should be concerned about; it’s happening now. While writing this post, I myself have been confused about whether to refer to the, um, piece of writing I’m discussing as an article, piece, blog post or commentary. What in God’s name is it? And how many times have you read a crappy special interest feature on a major news website and witnessed an adult commenter criticising the news outlet by observing that it “must be a slow news day”? Are those readers conscious of the difference between news and special features, and do they therefore criticise the news outlet for linking to too many special features because there is no news that day? Or do we now regard everything as one conflated concept of “news” and therefore complain when the content (which once upon a time would have been squarely in the realm of fluff piece to ignore) turns out to be tripe?

To return to my example, it’s encouraging that a couple of commenters called the author out for his use of the word “assimilate”. However, it is interesting that many of the commenters, regardless of their particular views, automatically adopted the word “assimilate” in expressing their thoughts about foreigners in the workplace. Would so many readers have chosen this expression had the author been a bit more careful in his use of language, if the author had been a trained journalist who understood exactly what assimilate means? I don’t believe so.

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