Jon Pienaar

News insights from The Newsroom

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The_Newsroom_CarouselJon and I have just started watching The Newsroom, the compelling HBO series created by Academy and Emmy-award winning phenomenon, Aaron Sorkin [the brains behind A Few Good Men and The West Wing]. What makes this series electric – apart from the fast-paced dialogue, the wit, and the politics – is the intelligence. Everything about the series is clever.

The plot of last night’s episode, called News Night 2.0, centered on protagonists Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) rebooting their television news show [called News Night]. McAvoy and his old team had been playing it safe [think celebrity politics; pitting politicians against each other instead of focusing on policy and issues; as well as digging into predictable ratings boosters like human interest stories, sensationalist opinion and pop-culture fluff].

News Night 2.0 – the reboot – is all about not playing to the crowd, but getting back to the roots of journalism. Doing news that educates and informs voters instead of news that tries to grab ratings. The big difference between the two, of course, is dumbing down voters and making money instead of taking the road less traveled. The tougher way of doing news is supporting democracy by doing the hard stories that teach people about policy, the constitution and empower a thinking citizenry.

During the News Night 2.0 episode McHale unveils a white board with her ‘rules’ for reinventing the fictional news show:


These new rules for a TV news show that’s relevant to voters and to informing a democracy are:

1. Is this the information we need in the voting booth?

2. Is this the best possible form of the argument?

3. Is the story in historical context?

As South Africa moves to what is the most crucial election of our young democracy these ‘rules’ offer much in the way of guidelines for local journalists covering South African news that matters. When reporting perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the stories we cover offer our electorate what they need to know in the voting booth; if we offer historical context in our news; and whether the argument we’re putting forward is the best form of argument in terms of our democracy.

To err is human

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41ma-KlXVmLIn online publishing  perhaps Alexander Pope’s eminent quote “To err is human; to forgive, divine” should be changed to: “to err is human; to correct, divine.” When a fallacious facts make their way into newspapers, the bolted horse often means that corrections are more notably visible.

However in online news often there’s the temptation to fix that fact without a trace of an apology or correction. But given that journalism is the first draft of history, don’t publishes owe it to their readers to act ethically and correct correctly by being transparent in how they make corrections?

The Economist Style Guide dictates:

Apologies and corrections: Unless some other arrangement has been made, apologies and corrections should appear, under the heading Apology (or Correction), in a box in the section giving rise to them, at either the top or the bottom of the page. Corrections need not be ponderous. Apologies, however, should not be flippant. They should leave the reader with the impression that we are genuinely sorry for any offence given, not merely sorry that we had to say sorry.

Making mistakes in the news business is punishing to the ego, but accepting responsibility for those errs creates a sense of accountability which is important to ensure the credibility of news brands.

Besides The Economist Style Guide is useful for a lot more than just good form when it comes to apologies and corrections. From that writer’s ‘how to’, here’s George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946):

  1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
  4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).