Caroline Roddis explores the roots of poor journalistic practice that lead to farcical stories such as ‘Puffin-gate’ back in the summer

The Telegraph falsely claimed that scores of Brits were heading to Iceland to score bags of puffins

There are many things that keep me awake at night. Brexit is probably top of the list, followed by equally important topics such as whether or not I’ve locked the front door and how I’ve once again blown the paltry beginnings of my new gun fund on wine and whisky.

Another perennial item on the list, which despite hours of puzzling over I still can’t understand, is what the hell keeps you occupied on a three year journalism course?

I can understand that, like all undergraduate university courses, the first year is reserved for drinking and stealing traffic cones, a few months are needed for skiving and using budget airlines to their full potential, and almost every Saturday of all three years will be spent working to pay off the £27,000 you’re blowing – or as some people call it, investing – on a ‘useful’ ‘education’.

Yet I still can’t work out where the rest of the time goes. They don’t even learn shorthand any more, so how much is there to actually learn?

There are many people who disagree with me and believe this lengthy and expensive training to be essential to the successful practice of journalism, so much so that they won’t employ anyone without it.

I maintain, and will probably always maintain, that most of the great print journalists never had training and never needed it, although I concede that the television ones might need a bit of training on how to plug some wires in.

And, as far as I can see, the introduction of university journalism training, which got going in earnest in the 70s but has recently exploded thanks to the foolish and morally bankrupt commercialisation of higher education (not that I have strong feelings, or anything) has definitely not led to a rise in journalistic standards. Journalistic standards, in fact, might arguably be at an all-time low. [Ed. Except in Gun Trade News, of course.] 

Nothing illustrates this better than the Puffin-related fiasco we endured a few months ago, in which an entirely fatuous Telegraph piece falsely claimed Brits were flocking to Iceland to score big bags of puffins.

A large number of other publications simply repeated the story without bothering to verify the Telegraph’s claims, adding fuel to the predictable social media storm. 

Quite how wrong the article was is farcical, not only was the central claim nonsense but, according to Guido Fawkes, the figure of £3,000 cited as the price of a commercial puffin hunt was clumsily converted from a US website that marketed services to Americans, and the photograph used to illustrate the piece was, as the President of the Icelandic Hunting Association Áki Ármann Jónsson, explained, a 2010 snap from The Icelandic Hunting Club, which hunts about 200 puffins yearly.

The Countryside Alliance, who along with others deserve vast praise for reacting to the story by finding out the true facts and then setting the record straight, summarised the situation thus: “It quickly became clear that the attempt to link puffin hunting with British hunters was utter fabrication by an animal rights group and the Telegraph did not seem to have done a jot of research for their story.  

“When we complained they even asked us for the contact details of the Icelandic hunting organisation, which is a strange way to go about journalism.” A strange way indeed. Clearly fact-checking isn’t a part of any training programme these days, university or otherwise.

Newspaper editors like to bang on about their stable of top investigative journalists, and about how they’ve broken ‘X’ number of very important stories in the past year. Incidents like puffin-gate, however, show how small a proportion of their enterprise investigative journalism actually makes up, and how the bulk of their business is really in churning out stories that are designed to get more clicks online, and consequently attract more advertising. Depressingly, they probably do teach that bit in the journalism courses.  

What are students learning in our hallowed halls of journalistic education? (© Graham Hodgson )

Bad journalism erodes trust, and results in more and more people using the term ‘fake news’, not to laugh at Donald Trump but to comment on their perceived state of the media.

It creates a situation where James Dellingpole can write an article for Breitbart titled ‘Every Story You Read About The Environment is #fakenews’, and argue that because the puffin story is fake you shouldn’t believe any other article either, particularly about climate change. (Okay, if you’re reading Breitbart you’re probably wearing a tinfoil hat and clutching a musket anyway, but you get the point.) 

Bad journalism also takes up a vast amount of our organisations’ time and money. Those in the shooting media and membership bodies are justly proud of their investigative work in setting the puffin story straight, but they shouldn’t have to expend their energies fighting this nonsense. 

I don’t know what the ideal solution is – and neither, clearly, does anyone teaching a journalism course – but perhaps the industry chipping in to fund more full-time journalism posts and opportunities in the shooting media, or a dedicated rural affairs fact-checking site would be a good place to start. Unlike those at university, we can’t just sit back, watch TOWIE and do nothing.

Caroline Roddis is a freelance journalist with a passion for field sports. Her monthly column, ‘Shooting In The Media’, is an irreverent comment piece exploring topical issues.


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