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Translating the data: Journalism in transition

There’s been a huge mass of conversations about freedom of the press recently. Whether we discuss the morality of reporting the controversial, the justice of lack of reporting around what people perceive as significant events, and the power that media has and that the people who control the media have more power than anyone else.

I’ve worked at The Badger for almost a term and a half now. I’ve been writing articles and blogs for almost two years before that. I’m no expert on media ethics, nor do I pretend to be, but I feel like the conversations happening around media are incredibly useful and I’d like to add my perspective.

I think an understanding of how journalists see their role can help readers understand the motivations behind the publications of what they read. Charlie Hebdo have been upfront in their mission: to push boundaries of the morality and legality of content. But I’d say most news organisations have a slightly different outlook.

All the journalists I’ve met see their role as simply disseminating information. We aren’t the people making the news, we just translate official documents, legal reports, and laborious meetings into a few hundred words that will either educate you, entertain you, or in some way add something to your understanding of whats going on around you.

As an illustration, I read through forty page document on changes to the planning permission status of the University, allowing it to make structural changes to listed buildings without having to consult English Heritage. It was one of the least interesting documents I’ve ever read. I don’t care in the slightest about planning permission law. The document listed the exact size, font and paint finish of external signage. I don’t care, no one does.

But from it I got one take-away: that there are now less boundaries to making changes that can positively impact students with access problems at Sussex. That’s an important piece of information to me, and maybe to someone else. So are reports of crime at the University, because if no one made the statistics understandable, no one would be aware changes needed to be made. Numbers are nothing without context.

It’s the same reason that scientists write abstracts for their papers, or books have blurbs: you need to have a rough understanding of what’s going on to understand the deep issues and changes. But, it’s rarely useful to just dump people with a spreadsheet and hope they find a message from it.

That’s the point of journalism, I believe. We take raw data and fact and turn it into something relatable, understandable and hopefully interesting. Freedom of the press matters because if the data is out there and it is something people should know, we present it in a way that makes you want to know what’s going on.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound?

If an important event happens, but no-one was aware it occurred or if they did they didn’t understand it’s significant, is it important?

Freedom of the press matters because journalists are the translators of the world. We take a mess or a confusion and put it into words you can understand. If people stop us making that translation, if people stop us writing, we are no longer able to communicate important facts, and facts can lose their significance in favour of public relations presented as journalism.

Maybe pushing boundaries is a form of this journalistic translation, as controversy takes those boundaries and shines a light on them, and lets people see that we aren’t as free as we thought. That is important in itself.

But maybe most writers just want to feel like the work they do has value. We want people to understand what’s going on around them. I adore the fact that modern media now means everyone can take the time to translate this data into stories if they want.

It creates new interpretations and perspectives. But, remember that whatever you write is simply a refection or a translation of data, it isn’t the data itself. Dig deeper for the truth, but allow the truth to be reflected.

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