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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 3

"The Reporting of the Future."

page 92

"The Reporting of the Future."

One of the tendencies of modern journalism is towards the abolition of the reporter. The craving for the sensational is not satisfied with a faithful record of current events. If a statesman makes a speech on a matter of international importance, a class of newspaper readers is far more interested in the fact (or fiction) that he blew his nose in a red silk handkerchief than in the opinions he expressed or the arguments he adduced. To this class of readers an increasing section of journals is almost exclusively addressed. Their conductors, accepting apparently Carlyle's dictum that mankind are « mostly fools, » choose to ignore the intelligent minority, except to flout them. This practice was neatly satirized the other day by Dr von Bülow, who sent his opera-hat as a parting memento to the « musical » critic of an American paper, who had written more about the doctor's hat than his music. The plain honest straightforward report is voted « dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage. » In its place is demanded something hot and spiced—no matter if the spice be, as it very often is, the rankest falsehood. We regard the tendency as entirely evil—demoralizing alike to the press and the public. In the Reporters' Magazine, Mr William Hill has written on « The Reporting of the Future, » and as he is the news editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, which with Mr O'Connor's Star, and Bennett's Herald, is in the front rank of the « new journalism, » he is in a position to speak with some authority. And this is what he says:—

What I contend is simply this, that a good deal of the reporting that we have to-day, is purely formal, and almost red tape in its character…..The report begins: 'Last night the annual meeting of the A. B. branch of the Church of England Temperance Society was held in the town hall. Mr James Smith, J.P., presided, and amongst those present were—then follow half a dozen names of influential persons. Then comes the Secretary's report, of which some half dozen lines are given, quite colorless, and conveying only ideas which have been within the cognisance of the reader ever since he was able to read a newspaper, and so on.

He goes on to give his idea of a « good report »:

Whatever the meeting, the report, written in simple, familiar, even colloquial language, should he lucid, terse; every point of importance, and only points of importance, should be conveyed in the clearest and briefest language.

The reporter of the future, according to Mr Hill, will not be a recorder of facts, but a descriptive writer. He will produce « a picturesque panorama, » « no suggestive incident being omitted, and even the under-currents being clearly and decidedly delineated. »

To those unfamiliar with the technicalities of journalism, and the actual scope of a reporter's duties, Mr Hill's picture may seem attractive. To those who can read between the lines, it has a particularly ugly appearance. It means that all those qualities which have placed the best reporters at the head of their profession—clear perception, quickness of apprehension, good memory, accuracy of reproduction, impartiality, and, most of all, conscientious fidelity to the truth, are out of date. The man possessing all these qualities, whose short-hand notes, years after they were taken, are accepted as unquestionable evidence in a court of law, is to find his occupation gone. His place is to be taken by the egotistical, shallow, and inaccurate « impressionist, » who records how « Mr Gladstone carefully deposited his handkerchief in his hat, » or « Mr Davitt stooped to pick up a pin, » but is too indolent to take short-hand notes—even if he has the ability. He must be sketchy, superficial, and, above all, a partizan. He must be personal, abusive; and an occasional flavoring of profanity or indecency will make his mess still more acceptable to the sensation-mongers for whom he caters. The reporter of the past was an historian—the « reporter » of the future is to be a penny-dreadfullist.

Such, in plain English, is the ideal of journalists like Mr Hill and Mr O'Connor. They are guilty of the usual vice of depreciating the good work that has been done in the past. Notwithstanding all they may profess, descriptive reporting is no new discovery. It has always been freely and quite sufficiently used, but has hitherto been kept in its proper place. For many years (to take a prominent example) Mr J. Ewing Ritchie has supplied the Christian World with descriptive reports of important meetings: but the gifts of a « Christopher Crayon » are rare, and exceptional as they were, they have never been allowed to exclude the formal record. We may read Punch's « Essence of Parliament » with pleasure, and smile at Mr Harry Furniss's sketches of « M.P.'s in Session; » but no one out of Bedlam would propose that these should be taken as the official record of proceedings. « Business done: None » —reads well enough in Punch; but would scarcely pass as an entry for the day in the Journals of the House.

When school histories are abolished in favor of The Three Musketeers and Jack Sheppard, Mr Hill's millennium will be at hand. For then the young will be trained from their earliest days into an appreciation of the qualities of the « new journalism. » One of the worst signs of the times is the multiplication of trashy and conscienceless periodicals which sacrifice without the slightest scruple, truth to « sensation. » It is not a mere question of supply and demand—the two react, and the supply creates demand. Formerly, the evil was confined to well-known weekly papers—generally the mouthpiece of some self-assertive literary Bohemian, too dangerous, too unstable, and too quarrelsome to fill a niche on the staff of any established periodical. Now the disease is seizing on the daily press. We look for a report, and find a squib. We wade through a farrago of stale and strained jocularities, and dreary drivel; and turning to the opposition paper, we find a similar caricature from the opposite point of view; and for days afterwards the two journals are occupied in accusing each other—righteously enough—of falsehood and misrepresentation.

So long as the daily press kept its hands clean the evil was no serious. No one of undepraved tastes would dream of buying an ordinary « society » weekly, and its worst evil would be the effect of its pictures on the juveniles who might see them exhibited in a tobacconist's window. But this is rapidly changing. It is difficult to imagine anything more revolting than the spirit of irreverence that jests with such themes as crime, suffering, disease, death, and the ultimate destiny of mankind. Such themes are becoming the staple of the funny column not only of « society » papers; but—as we have more than once noted, even of papers professing to be the official organs of a religious denomination. Nothing is more saddening than the revelations of wickedness and sorrow in the daily records of the police courts. It is necessary that they should be reported; and under the « old » system this was done in a decent manner. Under the new, in a large section of the colonial press, it is simply indecent. Let us give an imaginary example:—

Old Style. New Style.
His Worship took his seat at 11, with a smile on his face and a nosegay in his buttonhole.
A Comic Valentine.
Valentine Johnson, an elderly man, suffering apparently from the effects of liquor, was charged with having been drunk and riotous on the 17th inst. He was further charged with using obscene language in a public place, and with assaulting Police-Constable O'Kelly in the execution of his duty. Prisoner admitted the offences. Several previous convictions were on record.—Fined £2, or in default one month's hard labor. Valentine Johnson was the first to toe the mark. He looked the character, he did—a reglar chromo. He'd a face on him like a biled owl—a black eye, and a wart on his chin. Mixed his drinks on Saturday night, and started out to decorate the town with hematite. Constable O'Kelly took him in hand, and got rolled in the mud. 'What have you to say for yourself?' asked the Beak. 'Nothing,' says Val. A month's hard.
Judy in Trouble Again.
Julia Ryan was charged, on the information of Ellen Brown, with assault. A neighbor's quarrel, in which complainant had been roughly handled. The defence was, that provoking language had been used.—Fined £1, and bound over to keep the peace for three months. Ellen Brown, a large woman with a voice like a fog-horn, charged Julia Ryan with assault. Julia has faced his Worship so often as to be quite at home in the box. 'I'd do it again, your lordship,' she said. 'She called me a name I wouldn't repate before all these gintlemen.' Fined a sov., and bound over.
page 93
An Old Beast.
William Blakeley, aged 65, was charged with an assault upon a child of tender years. The evidence (which was unfit for publication) was clear, and accused was committed for trial. William Blakeley, a hoary-headed villain….. Half-a-column of indecent evidence.)

Our examples are in no way exaggerated. Which is the best? Which is the most in accord with that self-respect which should distinguish the honorable profession of journalism? And which of the two is the more fit to be introduced into the family circle of the ordinary common-place home-loving Christian Englishman?

No spark of wit or honest humor enlivens the « new journalism. » Its jests are strained when they are not stolen, and its idea of humor, as in the sample above, is flippancy, coarseness, familiarity, vulgar slang, and inconceivable inanity.

Apart from the moral depravity which « literature » of this kind induces, with its irreverence and affected cynicism, the question has its practical side, as affecting the law of libel. After many years of struggle the advocates of the liberty of the press have wrested from Parliament the recognition of their right to report matters of public interest, and such bonâ fide reports are now privileged. No sooner is this concession gained than we are threatened with a development under which this valuable privilege will be voluntarily abandoned. Reports are to be superseded by fancy sketches, more or less scurrilous, in which the knob on a man's head or on his cane will be the central object, and in which the imaginary and often entirely fictitious « undercurrents » a will be noted, to the exclusion of actual facts. If this system is ever generally adopted by the press, it must be at their own risk. No law of libel could privilege the personal abuse and low caricatures which characterize the « new journalism. » In proportion as it extends will libel actions increase, and the same readers who grin and chuckle over the gross attacks on public men will, when they confer in the jury-room, award exemplary damages against the offending newspaper. Reports such as are foreshadowed will be neither « true, » nor « for the public benefit, » and when an enterprising journalist of the kennel-raking tribe is cast in ruinous damages, the verdict of the public, fully endorsed by Typo, will be « Served him right! »