Putting news before comment

A convocation of critics leaped on Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, over comments he made when guest editor of the New Statesman on 13 June. His sin was to suggest in a signed leader for the magazine – analysing the political debate in the UK – that: “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.”

It was a rather thoughtful piece, which looked at the big political ideas of the day – or lack of them – and the way “political thinkers today are quarrying theological traditions for ways forward”. All in all, fruitful stuff for the Guardian, which appeared to cover the issue extensively. But there was a key element missing for some readers who believed that the lack pointed to a wider trend.

As one reader from Somerset put it: “Can I raise something which I think is a worrying trend? It is the tendency of the Guardian to print lots of reaction to, and analysis of, a story – without reporting the story properly in the first place.

“In today’s paper [Friday 9 June], Rowan Williams’s New Statesman editorial is covered as follows (in the order in which they appear in the paper): a long and brilliant analysis by Michael White of conflicts between church and state down the ages; a political piece quoting the reactions of David Cameron, Vince Cable, Iain Duncan Smith and others; a slightly obscure Steve Bell cartoon; a supportive leading article; and a letter from Canon Mark Oakley.

“I suggest that none of this makes much sense to anyone who doesn’t know what the archbishop said. In the political piece there is a 17-word direct quotation. There are some other partial quotes in the leading article. But nowhere is there a straightforward report of what he wrote (the Times, while still concentrating on the reaction, made slightly more effort to report the archbishop’s words).

“Now I guess this story was extensively covered by radio, television and the internet yesterday. To people on the newsdesk, it probably seemed old – so the thing to do was move on to reaction. But I missed it all. Have you abandoned the idea that I can get all the news I need simply by getting the Guardian each morning? Perhaps more seriously, I’ve now been out and bought the New Statesman – and as one would expect, the archbishop’s article is thoughtful, well argued and worth reading. But in reading it after the reaction, I feel I’m doing all this backwards.

“Please don’t regard this as in any way a complaint. Rather, a gentle grumble from a grumpy old man about the way the world is going.”

The response from the Guardian’s national head of news to this, and another letter making similar points, illustrates some of the problems facing news editors: “You are right that this is an important issue and one we are grappling with a lot at the moment as we decide on the right balance of news and analysis for the newspaper.

“It was compounded in this particular instance because we carried a full news story with the archbishop’s quotes in the later editions of Thursday’s paper [10 June] – which you probably wouldn’t have got in Somerset. Even so, we perhaps should have carried at least a news summary with the subsequent analysis.

“This tension will become more acute as more of our readers get their immediate news online and I won’t pretend we have the answer yet, but your email was a particularly clear explanation of the risks of going too far…”.

Part of the problem is what is known as the “commoditisation” of news. This is the term used to describe the effect of a growing number of news stories all written in a relatively similar way, all available swiftly after an event on the web and therefore each one less distinctive. This means that a newspaper in print and online looks to approach a story in a way that stresses a point of difference. That makes sense. But before you can enjoy the added value of the analysis and the comment on the event, news organisations must not forget to tell the readers what it is.

This column was originally published in The Guardian on June 19, 2011.

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