The target is the real story

10th June 2005 at 01:00
My first job after leaving school was on the Middlesex Chronicle, reporting on events in a county which even then had ceased to exist. I was paid Pounds 11-something per week. I cannot remember precisely what the something was, but I do remember it was calculated in groats.

Later, I moved to an evening paper in South Yorkshire - a county which had never existed - before taking a degree and succumbing to the lure of that sweet siren that is further education.

Recently, though, the pendulum of my working life has begun to swing back towards my original vocation, and I have become a curious sort of hybrid - two-thirds lecturer and one-third journalist. Inevitably, this has led me to make comparisons between the two fields. In particular, it has made me realise how far behind the times the world of journalism is compared to the giant steps forward we have taken in education.

You see, what strikes me now about the business of researching and producing articles is that that is precisely what lecturers do: first you obtain information; then you write the story. That is it. End (if you will forgive the pun) of story.

Any teacher reading this will immediately appreciate the problem: there is a huge amount missing from this model. Just as an iceberg displays only a ninth of its bulk above the water line, so teaching today has a huge submerged element that is the real work of all teachers.

Apply this to journalism and the deficiencies are obvious. Although most of them probably do not realise it, journalists are wasting their professional time on things that are not really essential. Not at the heart of what they should be doing.

Where, for instance, in the account given above is there anything to ensure the "quality" of the journalistic product?

Let us start with the setting of targets. As we all know, nothing was ever accomplished in the world before the regime of targets became fashionable a decade or so back. Now, as teachers, we spend many productive hours setting, and missing, our targets. And when we do miss them, we can then spend yet more hours wondering why, not to mention the whole process of setting new targets for us to miss in the future.

And it is not just teachers who have discovered the benefits of the targets regime. Visiting a friend in hospital recently, I noticed on his notes a box marked "patient's target". A nurse had clearly spent some time and energy that she might otherwise have wasted on caring for her patients by formulating and then entering the following: "To effect a speedy recovery and be discharged from the ward as soon as possible."

As night follows day, so action plans inevitably trail in the wake of targets. Here, too, journalists are missing out through their myopic and single-minded pursuit of stories.

Last year, a lecturer friend told me that he was required to write five separate action plans for just one of the courses he taught and ran.

Just think how much better this column would be if only I took a little (well, actually quite a lot) of time away from it, for a similar bout of action planning.

Then there is the issue of evidence. How does a journalist know - or, more to the point, how does a journalist's editor know - that good stories have been written? (Sorry, that last part should, of course, have read "that high-quality journalistic services have been delivered.") You might think that the articles are there for all to see, in the same way as a student's results are in the public domain. But anyone could have written that piece. It could have been downloaded verbatim from the internet. Or culled from last year's paper.

Every journalist should therefore be required to produce their own "trail of evidence". An interview is conducted: the interviewee signs off the reporter's log sheet. An article is written: the plan, draft and edited version is collected, stored and appropriately labelled.

This will involve more work but surely no journalist worth his or her salt could resent losing days off and weekends when they realise the quality gains that would be achieved.

British journalism is crying out for its very own inspection regime. Just as with the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate, this will provide an absolute guarantee of quality.

Thus the new journalism inspection mandate (or JIM) will be welcomed by the whole profession. Quite why no one has thought of JIM before is a puzzle to me - a sort of Jimmy riddle if you like.

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