Original journalism is about what you don't know, not what you do

What does a young journalist understand by ‘original journalism”?

That it’s close to a tautology? Doing ‘originality’is being a journalist, supposedly. But looking round for examples in the British press, they might conclude something different.

Much ‘original’political journalism – leaks on proposed changes to planning laws or the reintroduction of stop on suspicion, for example – might seem to require little more than the ability to record a phone call or briefing. Rewriting a press release, by other means.

We come across so-called ‘exclusives’from sources never named and immune to verification, sustained by ‘facts’which, while not exactly false, aren’t exactly true either and supporting rather than challenging the paper’s world view.

Our young journalist might be puzzled by the blurred boundaries between journalism and polemic – by the assumption that audiences are too impatient to follow the careful collation of facts. That view is a cynical one, and not universally true, but it is closer to the truth than is comfortable, and that’s a shame.

Getting the story right and first is the biggest thrill of the trade – it should be the reason those thousands of journalism postgrads put themselves through an extra year at school.

Ironically, it was Donald Rumsfeld who came, unintentionally, closest to capturing the idea of original journalism in his mocked ‘unknown unknowns’briefing.

Original journalism – all good journalism – starts with what you, the journalist, don’t know. Not with what you do know.

The whole idea is to find out and verify what it is you didn’t know and tell it faithfully and accurately to a whole bunch of other people who didn’t know they didn’t know… but are glad they do now.

It needs contacts and connections, of course, but close insiders are often the worst at realising what they don’t know. It needs more curiosity and scepticism. Any fool can be an amanuensis to the terminally discontented, and there is nothing in the laws of the universe that says a ‘source’invariably gives a more accurate, balanced or credible account than the ‘official’version.

Forming and asking questions that reveal why any account – private or public – doesn’t add up is at least as valuable. Remember Bethany McLean’s refusal to believe that Enron really was making money?

The arch-enemy of original journalism is conventional wisdom – and journalists easily default to conventional wisdoms.

The hunt for the ‘line’within the pack’s framing offers the illusion of originality. It creates pressure on newsdesks to push reporters to find that ‘new line”. But that’s the mother of the worst kind of invention – facts get manhandled, the irrelevant gets headlined, counterevidence gets forgotten.

The original journalist always questions the frame. ‘What if the opposite is true?’is a great question to begin with, even if – especially if – your newsdesk doesn’t get it.

Couple that with the wit and will to work out what the counter-evidence would look like and you’re taking the first steps towards generating truly original journalism – filling in that unknown-unknown gap.

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