14 August 2010
Tom Scott has come up with a brilliant idea: labels that can be stuck on to newspaper articles to warn readers that the contents might be bad for them. We have warning labels on just about everything else, so why not on newspapers, he reasons?
He's created a sheet of stickers you can print out that covers the most common problems with news media today, including PR surveys masquerading as news, unverified tip-offs reported as facts, unverified plagiarism from other publications, and the publication of almost unedited press releases. My favourite one is 'Warning: Journalist does not understand the subject they're writing about'.
I've written about bad journalism in the past, including the Daily Mail and the Sun's publication of unverified claims of a ghost sighting, and the Daily Telegraph's poor research on a medical story. It would be wonderful to see people sticking warnings on stories such as these.
Tom Scott says that he's been putting the labels onto free newspapers on the underground, but it would be an interesting exercise to take a paid-for daily newspaper, and see how many articles do not deserve any of the labels. For a lot of the dailies, I'm guessing few stories will escape unscathed. That's one reason why newspapers will struggle to charge for online content: they're not doing their job well enough for people to be willing to pay.
All of the labels concern the reporting and not the material selection, so I did suggest that one missing label might be: "This is trivia. It doesn't matter. Read a book." Tom Scott replied that "one person's trivia is another person's vital information", which is true enough and puts my suggestion outside the scope of his project. Even so, I think poor story selection is also an important constraint on newspaper quality today. If there were fewer Paris Hilton stories, there would be more space for real news, and more need to generate real news too.
You can download the labels at Tom's website.