Can journalistic quality be “measured”?

March 19, 2004 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 19, 2004

Across America, editors and publishers are split into two camps, as Jim Chisholm reports in Newspaper & Technology (March 2004). “In one camp there is total disbelief that so little is being done to measure the output of our journalists in terms of quantity and quality. In the other there is utter disdain that anyone could associate the clinical notion of measurement with the art – or is it magic? – of journalism.”

Even in the old world these two points of view exist. However, since a few years ago when communication researchers started the discussion over quality in journalism, considerable progress has been made in the measurement and evaluation of journalistic work. A book recently published by the media scientists Hans Juergen Bucher (University of Trier) and Klaus Dieter Altmeppen (Technical University of Ilmenau) discusses this subject. In the volume, approximately 20 researchers and media practitioners present models on how the discussion on quality is being carried on in printed media, radio, television and in on-line journalism. The fact that there are no easy solutions is made very clear by Bucher in the preface: quality debates become complex also because conflicting principles, benchmarks, standards and regulations come into play; these include media law and personal protection, ideological and religious principles, trade and how-to-do rules, and editor-specific agreements. And in this way, the volume above all documents impressively how the discussion has branched out in the meantime.

What is remarkable is how large a proportion of the authors either work in Switzerland or feel a high affinity for the country. That could be an indication that questions regarding journalistic professionalism are confronted with more open-mindedness in this country than in the rest of the German-speaking world.

Meanwhile what irritates again and again, are the detours taken by quality researchers as well as the lack of attention shown so far to one of the most important problems in journalistic quality management: the collection, reduction and correction of reporting errors, which occur every day in editorial offices in the fast-paced news business. The research for this is still at its very beginning.

But even without scientific assistance, most editorial offices could make a large leap forward in this field. Jim Chisholm of the World Association of Newspapers, who observes the progress of newspaper editorial offices world-wide when it comes to quality management, is surprised that his seemingly well-grounded suggestion encounters so little approval with chief editors. For a while, editorial offices should report back to all their informants and check with a short questionnaire whether their reporting of facts was correct, whether interpretations were perceived as being fair and whether important points of view remained unpublished in the newspaper. The usefulness of such action would be enormous: It would be a clear signal that the newsroom worries seriously about the accuracy of reporting. In such a way, each reader would feel that he is taken seriously and has the right to speak out freely. In a short time one would get a picture of whose reporters’ specialized skills should be built up. “Moreover, one in three pieces of feedback contains an impulse for a follow-up story”, says Chisholm.

Hans-Jürgen Bucher/Klaus-Dieter Altmeppen (Editor): Qualität im Journalismus. Grundlagen – Dimensionen – Praxismodelle, Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag 2003.

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