Towards a philosophy, theory and practice of reporting, part 1

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 16 April 2021 | Last updated 18 April 2021

A uneven wall about four feet high made of grey stones of different sizes and shapes with green vegetation growing from some of the gaps between them
A granite dry-stone wall in England circa 2019

Here are some ideas for a philosophy, theory and practice of reporting facts.

This series is intended to that reflect in broad terms the approach I am attempting to develop with but might also have wider applicability.

Dispassionate reporting

In a 1940 essay of literay criticism George Orwell made an incidental comment as follows:

“Life has a buoyant, carefree quality that you can feel as you read, like a physical sensation in your belly. It is this that Whitman is celebrating, though actually he does it very badly, because he is one of those writers who tell you what you ought to feel instead of making you feel it.” (Inside the Whale, 1940)

In a 2017 interview the award-winning reporter John Pilger described his early training working on a newspaper. “I always feel I had such good training”, he said, before describing how the editor “imposed a strict style, no passive voice, words had to be, er you couldn‘t say during you had to say in, no clichés. Can you believe it? No clichés. And if you were going to use an adjective you had to get special dispensation.”

“And I remember they had a big buddha-looking character called Ray Walker who was a retired chief sub-editor. He was the keeper of the language.”

There was a Ferris wheel that had collapsed, injuring some children. ...“and I had been out there and I was very moved by this and I wanted to use the word ‘tragic’ and I had to go and see Ray. “And he gave me permission and in went ‘tragic’.”

He concluded: “But it, it, I suppose taking clichés, intellectual clichés, out of yourself and out of your work is is is something I have tried to do er and to look behind everything. A cliché or or perhaps a lot of those adjectives stop you looking behind facades and that’s what, that‘s what I like doing.” (At the British Library, 10 December 2017).

What both of these perspectives have in common is the idea of purifying out interpretation and evaluation.

Orwell wrote that good writer would make a reader feel something without telling them what they ought to feel. So a good reporter would leave the readers to their own conclusions without using the evaluative adjective to tell them what they ought to think.

The comparison with literature leads also to the idea that such reporting is aesthetically preferable.

From this perspective the ideal reporting is like a dry-stone wall of hard facts placed next to each other. Ideally a minimum amount of filler - interpretation - is used to make them fit together.

After all, if you as a reporter have an opinion on something, there are presumably factual reasons for your thinking and at least in theory it always should be possible to invite the reader to stand next to you and see the same facts rather than directly telling them what to think. (Incidentally this attitude of sharing information might account for the appeal of Orwell's literary voice.)

If you are outraged by some injustice or dishonest behaviour then it should be possible to present the reader with the facts of that injustice. Then either they will share your outrage without being told what to do, or they won't. And if they don't, then perhaps that is telling you something. But whichever is the case, this aspect is beyond your responsibility, unless you want to write propaganda rather than reporting.

Now what might inhibit a totally pure, objective style?

The answer seems to be mainly, the need for concision. It can be quite complicated to describe all the extra facts and possible facts that lead towards a certain opinion.

However sometimes it is possible for the reporter to sketch the outline or give an impression with the minimum number of factual details, in the same way that a good artist or cartoonist can capture the essence of a particular face with only a few lines.