John-Paul Flintoff

On learning to be a good journalist

All I need is a shift in consciousness

Jeremy Wickremer at Speakers Corner

Recently, a man got in touch to ask if I would like to take part in an event he’s putting together.

It’s a summit, said Jeremy Wickremer, about Transformational Media.

Now, I must confess that the term did not immediately set my heart on fire. But as soon as I understood what it meant – media that is trying to make the world a better place – I was delighted to offer my support.

We’re in the middle of a shift, Wickremer explained, from media owned and broadcast by the powerful few to the creation and dissemination of media by the empowered many.

Hurrah!

In the coming decade, a billion people are expected to find their way online, joining the hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of us here already. And they’ll all be creating media to reflect what Wickremer calls, “our deep human desire to bond, and the state of our global interconnectedness”.

But a part of me – the trained, cynical journalist, you might say – has some objections. Not everybody who participates in online media is creating wholesome material. Some upload porn, or exhortations to hate crime, while millions of others merely speckle the internet with the kind of vicious, anonymous comments you find at the end of every story on (say) the Guardian’s website.

Of course, Wickremer is fully aware of this. “Does 2.2 billion people able to produce and instantaneously disseminate media necessarily lead to a democratic and equitable world? Well, no,” he concedes, in an article for the upbeat, cheerful Ode magazine. “The reason being that if there is not a corresponding shift in consciousness, the end product can still be the same. The internet is merely a tool to be used for good and bad.”

So we need a shift in consciousness. “Transformational media may be focused on inner qualities or practical solutions. Its goal is to unite rather than divide, bring peace rather than conflict, and create rather than destroy.”

Maddy Harland copyright My Green Directory To that end, as I mentioned already, Wickremer and others are putting on this summit. The “others” include Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine (who first published my book Sew Your Own as Through The Eye Of A Needle). One thing I like about this lot is that they really believe in what they’re doing to make the world better; and rather than merely lecture everybody else, they challenge themselves to get better too. For instance, Wickremer enrolled on a six-month course to learn to be an inspiring speaker: the picture at the top of the page shows him delivering a talk at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. He also addressed school children.

Wondering what I might do myself (regrettably, owing to rather full diary, I’m unable to take part in the summit) I followed his example and went into a primary school last week to teach eight-year-olds about journalism.

To begin, I told them a bit about what I had done myself (with an emphasis on the more exciting stories, lest their eyes should glaze over), and gave a rough idea how it all works, with editors sending the likes of me out to interview people and then quickly write things up.

Then we did a practical exercise. I asked one of the children to be my junior editor, and to bring me two cracking stories for the next day’s paper – by getting her classmates to interview each other.

First, she asked a boy to interview a girl about her time in the Brownies. The idea was to show how a “generalist” reporter (ie, not an expert on the subject) tries to get something interesting out. It went like a dream.

“What was the most scariest thing that you ever did when you were a Brownie?” was his first question.

“Well… once we were jumping over a bin and I fell straight into the bin and it tipped over head first,” she replied. There was much wild laughter before the interview could continue, flushing out details such as whether or not the Brownie came out smelly (she didn’t).

At the end, we role-played what happens after interviews are finished: the junior editor “phoned” her reporter to find out how the interview had gone, and asked for the highlights; then I, in the persona of hard-to-impress big-chief editor (not based on any real person, living or dead), phoned the junior editor to find out from her what the story was.

Interestingly, some circumstantial details of the original story were mangled in this telephone relay – as if we had been playing Chinese whispers. “That may be partly why people sometimes complain that newspapers get things wrong,” I said.

I asked the class what the headline should be. A boy at the back suggested a headline, which seemed spot on: “A Brownie fell in a dustbin.”

(There was some debate about whether this might be a story about a chocolate brownie, but the consensus was that a photograph of the Brownie in question would eliminate any ambiguity.)

Brownie in the bin, drawn by Sonya L.

Drawing: Sonya L

For the following interview, I asked my junior editor to organise an interview by an specialist reporter. Two boys volunteered to discuss their shared enthusiasm for cars. The conversation went exactly as follows.

“What was the fastest speed you ever experienced in a car?”

“A hundred and thirty-two miles an hour in my dad’s car.”

“Where was it, on a motorway?”

“The M4.”

“Was there a traffic jam?”

“No, but there was a Jaguar in front of us doing about 30 miles an hour – 100 less than us.”

“Was it day time or night time?”

“Day time.”

“Where were you going to?”

“Cornwall.”

“Which part of Cornwall?”

“Bude.”

“Was there anybody else in the car?”

“No. Just me and my dad.”

I was amazed by the interviewer’s skill, and the interviewee’s unguarded willingness to provide this scoop. But I was dismayed to note that the stories we had come up with, like any downmarket tabloid, had focused on disaster and breaking the law – so much for a shift in consciousness.

All the same, the teacher told me the class had been a big success. And I felt proud to have given the children a sense that journalism can be fun. Who knows, perhaps when they grow up, as well as creating transformational media on the internet, they may be willing occasionally to spend money on newspapers and magazines?

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