The following is addressed to all Digital Journal correspondents, especially newcomers and those for whom English is not their first language.
I signed up with Digital Journal on May 12 last year, but didn't submit my first article until April this year, after I was contacted by David Silverberg who said he was looking for correspondents to cover the then forthcoming Royal Wedding. Although news is not my forte, and I wasn't too impressed with the payment plan, I have reached an age where I don't have to rely on writing for an income, so I submitted a review article, and kind of got hooked.
Over the past quarter of a century, I have actually made relatively little from writing per se, though a fair amount from both litigation - of which no more anon - and research. Over the past decade or so, my income from research has more or less dried up, thanks to the Internet, but many others have suffered an even worse fate. The Internet may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the downside is that free information means free to receive, and free to give. Sure, there is still money to be made out there, but mostly by and for other people, at least until the world's governments take up my suggestion regarding the Internet and money creation.
If I were in this for the money, I'd never have started, and the same can be said of everyone who reports for Digital Journal, including its office staff. The same can doubtless be said for bloggers and other web scribblers the world over.
It is of course true that money matters, but money isn't everything, as we all come to realise whether it is through losing a loved one, our health, or something else that we may once have taken for granted. That being said, there are rewards attached to writing on-line that are unique in more ways than one.
To begin with, we have a privilege that no one in history has experienced before us. We, ordinary people, can sit at a keyboard and produce a blog, an article, a podcast or a video, which potentially millions of people can read, listen to, view, or even marvel at. We can do this instantaneously in a way even people who work in television can't, because within very broad parameters we can do it on our own terms.
You, the Digital Journal correspondent are blessed more than most, because all you need to do is write news in English, and even the word news is flexible. You can take something that has just happened or is ongoing, and you can bring in all sorts of historical, cultural and other references. You can decide what is news, not in the sly, manipulative way that some especially gutter press newspapers do, but whatever you find interesting, whatever you think the world may, would like to, or should, know about.
On top of that, you have not only the office staff but others to whom you can turn for advice or who will offer it whether you want it or not. Having said all that, here are a few hints.
When researching any article, do research it, don't simply copy, paste and paraphrase from a press release, or from two or three articles on Google News.
You are not of course limited to the Internet to find your stories. I have found stories walking down my local high street, one was inspired by the banging of drums outside the local Internet caff. I moved back to London in 1985, and began researching three years later, obtaining a British Library reader's pass and later visiting on occasion the Public Record Office. I was and am extremely fortunate to live in not only the world's greatest city but within easy travelling distance of some of its leading research archives. During the 1990s especially I would spend two, three or even four days a week researching, visiting perhaps three or more archives in one day. If you are living in a remote Nigerian town, rural Greece or the Australian Outback, you don't have that option. Or you didn't, because the mountain has come to Muhammed now that the whole world is on-line. In addition to sourcing stories locally, you may access databases which are not part of the regular Internet.
Many borough libraries in the UK now subscribe to NewsBank and other databases; if you are a student or affiliated with an institution of higher learning, you may also have free access to subscription databases. If you don't, you may be able to obtain access, either by subscribing or through other avenues, or failing that, a helpful person who subscribes to one may do you the odd favour. Don't be afraid to ask. On occasion I have had law librarians search and retrieve information for me.
On the subject of accuracy, most people advise you use a plurality of sources; there is something to be said for this, but sometimes a dozen, a hundred or even more sources will parrot the same lies or nonsense. This is an extraordinary phenomenon with which I am familiar more than most. Let me develop this a bit.
Ten years ago I set up a website about a supposedly controversial murder case. You can read all about it here. The murderer concerned was convicted in 1987, and his conviction was upheld twice, the second time in a strongly worded judgment handed down by Lord Justice Beldam in November 1995, yet the national media, the local media, and later the Internet, reported and continued to report it as a potential or even dreadful miscarriage of justice. Last year I even found a reference to it as such in a book written by a law lecturer.
The case of Linda Carty was, and is, still being peddled as a miscarriage of justice. Last year, the New York Times Supreme Court correspondent reported on the case without exercising any critical faculty by simply parroting the twaddle of Clive Stafford Smith, which is in turn based on the lies of Carty herself.
It is a sad fact that in some cases, the media - the entire media - is totally unable to report simple, non-controversial facts in a simple, non-controversial manner. In Carty's case, she organised the kidnapping of a young woman, then smothered her to death in the trunk of her car. Yet she is reported in Britain and doubtless many other places as a victim.
When faced with a legal case, or something for which there is an official paper trail, read the official documentation first, because it helps to have a proper narrative. A judgment of especially an appellate court is a finding of fact. It may be that the findings therein are substantially or even completely untrue, but they should not be challenged without something substantive.
Don't immediately assume anything the government publishes is correct; governments and individuals working for them can have agendas of their own, they can be sloppy, or they can make simple mistakes. It was for example established judicially that women have at times copulated with the Devil, and that his semen is cold. Most delusions and lies are more subtle than that nowadays, so you will need to keep your wits about you, but truth is not decided by a show of hands or a petition. A jury comes to a verdict not simply by voting but by examining the evidence and then attempting to persuade each other that they are right and the others wrong.
On the subject of the government and legal authorities misleading the public or even lying outright, check out Carroll Quigley's Tragedy And Hope...which you will find on Archive.Org.
Pay special attention to what he says about the atom spy case, and most especially to the treatment meted out to Abraham Brothman.
As Quigley points out, rather than being an atom spy - or indeed any sort of spy - Brothman was an industrial chemist who held several patents in the field of industrial solvents. His crime was to discuss with his secretary how to keep his name out of a Grand Jury hearing.
My own researches at Aldwych (the British Library Life Sciences before the move to St Pancras) unearthered a number of his articles, including these two from Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering:
Method for Emulsifier Choice, published in the May 1939 issue, and
New Analysis Provides Formula to Solve MIXING PROBLEM, by A. Brothman, G.N. Wollan and S.M. Feldman, published in the April 1945 issue. This latter article is highly technical.
Although even today Brothman is remembered as an atom spy, he was basically an innocous sap who received a seven year gaol sentence simply for trying to keep his name out of the papers. This is a bad case, but it is by no means unique. At the end of the day, one reliable source trumps a thousand conscious liars. Bear that in mind next time you encounter a well organised legal campaign screaming that some particular individual is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Or if you see someone portrayed as the Devil Incarnate for doing something most of us would do under the same circumstances, like Brothman or Maxine Carr.
Always beware of vested interest, but bear in mind that even vested interest can speak the truth while seemingly unbiased witnesses can lie, be hoodwinked, or mistaken. It may indeed be that company X is selling a terrific piece of hardware at an amazing price, or that company Y like Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes.
Beware of anyone peddling a conspiracy theory. In the first place, most conspiracy mongers peddle scurrilous gossip which they pass off as theories. Check out my article about the grand conspiracy, but two particular areas of which to be wary are murders that have a political dimension and terrorist outrages. The Kennedy Assassination and all the false flag nonsense and gibberish that continues to be peddled about 9/11 are undoubtedly the two worst examples.
Politics is of course riddled with disinformation, misinformation, and all manner of scurrilous gossip, as are business and showbusiness. Any powerful political figure, any business person, any celebrity, any public figure, can be the target of the most outrageous lies for any reason or none. Before the Internet, this sort of gossip would seldom find its way into the press; nowadays, things are reported on-line that even the most scurrilous tabloid wouldn't touch without the strongest corroboration. Sometimes, the gullible, like David Icke, pick up on such stories and won't let them go. At times, to their cost.
Often, seemingly sinister events and practices have prosaic explanations. In the United States, the legal authorities often reveal enormous amounts of information including at times gruesome crime scene photographs, while in Britain, this is never done because there are strict protocols in place covering how much can be disclosed, including the reporting of names.
In the old days, a murder suspect would be seen taken to a police station covered by a blanket. This is because there may have been identification issues, perhaps a line-up was to be held.
People often confuse secrecy with confidentiality. The fact that Mr A was convicted of blackmail seven years ago may be a matter of public importance; the fact that he was treated for a sexually transmitted disease is probably nobody's business but his own.
Look out for obvious hoaxes, like the Japanese scientist who was alleged to have created a high protein food from human sewage. Bear in mind too that often the truth really is stranger than fiction; the Australian shark arm murder is one of those stories you couldn't make up.
Anything related to the supernatural or the extraterrestrial should be treated with a great deal of skepticism. By all means report a sighting of strange lights in the sky, or the fact that several people claim to have seen a ghost, but never forget Occam's Razor.
Another important quality is humility. Many people don't understand what this word really means. You can shoot your mouth off and still be humble; alternatively you can be both quiet as a mouse and utterly conceited. We are all of us mere specks on a small planet in a vast galaxy in an immeasurable universe. And we are all or can be at times just plain dumb. Even the smartest and most learnéd of us can be duped by people who are not necessarily bright. If you are wrong, or have made a mistake, and especially if you have been duped, always admit it, and correct your error(s) at the first opportunity. Do not for heaven sake develop the Stockholm syndrome mentality which characterises so many well meaning people who are hoodwinked by the likes of the aforementioned Linda Carty, and those who in lobbying her case are misrepresenting her to the world as a miscarriage of justice, which clearly she isn't.
On more prosaic matters, style. Digital Journal has a very flexible house style; although I have always favoured substance over style, it helps if a website or at least a webpage is consistent. Generally I prefer to italicise book, newspaper, film and song titles; at the very least you should highlight these in some way, if not with italics then quotation marks, bold, or whatever. Try to avoid bad grammar. Chris Hogg has covered this subject in considerable depth in his article on editorial guidelines.
This one is so important that I'll say it in haiku:
Proof reading is a
Pastime best undertaken
With two pairs of eyes.
However many actual lies there may be in a newspaper, it is truly amazing how few spelling mistakes one finds. The Guardian would produce four editions a day: two published in London; two in Manchester. Before most people had even heard the word computer, some newspapers would produce four or even six editions daily. The profession of compositor has now gone the same way as that of the copy typist - something for which we have in part to thank Rupert Murdoch.
Always read and re-read your articles, and if someone suggests an improvement or points out an error or several, be thankful rather than irritated. If nothing else, it means someone else is reading your work. It is so easy to misspell words or to use the wrong word or the wrong context, to omit an apostrophe, or to put one where there shouldn't be one. Punctuation matters! Compare:
Pardon impossible. To be sent to Siberia.
Pardon. Impossible to be sent to Siberia.
Some people writing for Digital Journal are doing so in a foreign language; even though English is the lingua franca of the known universe, and you personally may speak it better than most native speakers, it is easy to miss subtle nuances. There are also national and regional differences; England and America being two countries divided by a common language.
Try to avoid both sensationalism and the abuse of statistics. Often you will see a headline in a newspaper that reports someone if convicted of such and such an offence faces a Draconian gaol sentence. Check out this article, and you'll see what I mean.
For a more extreme example, check out the testimony of Richard Peppiatt to the Leveson Inquiry, and listen closely to what he says about stories being rewritten at various stages, with each person adding something new (and false) to it.
As has often been observed, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. What do these statistics really mean, and from whence do they come? Is it really true that 80% or even 90% of rapes go unreported? How does anyone know? And what does it mean that only 6% of reported rapes result in a conviction? The truth is, nobody knows how many rapes are not reported; some almost certainly are, but by the same token, some that are reported, never happened.
Statistics in the field of race and to a lesser degree sex, are almost always taboo unless they depict certain groups as oppressed and others as oppressors, but most of the time they mean absolutely nothing, and to claim they do is pure opportunism or worse. Has there ever been a Chinese heavyweight boxing champion, and is it so terrible that America has never had a woman President? The women of Britain elected Margaret Thatcher; later, many came to wish they hadn't.
Statistics and associations in other fields can also mean absolutely nothing, including in medicine.
Another thing to avoid is a reference that is too parochial. Most people are familiar with the phrase “fifteen minutes of fame” and declensions thereof. Most people reading this dissertation will also know who said it, so a reference to “he's had his fifteen minutes”, etc, will be understood by most casual browsers. But what about “perhaps he didn't like Mondays”, if you were to use that phrase in an article about a spree killer, how many of your readers would realise you were referring to one terrible day in San Diego way back in January 1979? Or how about “chip and a chair” for poker players?
Finally, a few words about preserving your links. Try to use not only reliable sources but ones that are not likely to disappear next week. I have a preference for the BBC, but government websites are also a good shot. You can ensure that your links are preserved by visiting Archive.Org and entering the url in the Wayback Machine as designated below. [A sidenote: screengrabs - like this - can sometimes be added to an article with effect. If they are taken from videos such as the aforementioned Leveson Inquiry, there will be no copyright problems].
A screengrab of Archive.Org and the Wayback Machine.