Daily journalism: the translation game (A letter from Bangalore)

February 15, 2011

I arrived for my second day in the Reuters Bangalore bureau and confirmed something that yesterday I only suspected: no matter how many years you spend in journalism, interpreting and explaining the public statements of the companies we cover is a task that demands devotion and muscle.

Part of why I came here was to work on writing. Many Reuters reporters spend their days covering business news, and that means risking absorbing toxic, verbal poisons. The people and companies you cover when you write daily stories about business prefer to make their public statements abstruse and difficult to understand. It lets them fulfill their legal obligation to tell the truth, but in such a fuzzy, ill-defined way, and in such a poorly written way, that they hope the lazy reporter will not bother to simplify their words. The result is a story that says nothing. The result of that is a company that escapes its obligations to be completely honest with the public. The result of that is a less informed public and a poorer world — whether the poor be investors/gamblers or people who have suffered, however minor, from the company’s actions.

Why bother to put up with this state of affairs? If you deviate from the exact words that a company uses, you risk getting berated by the companies’ spokespeople. They say you took the wrong tone, that you were inaccurate and that you must correct your story. If you’re easily rattled, you comply immediately. Then you wonder why you’re in this stupid business and wasting your time by getting yelled at by people.

The easiest way to make that pain vanish is to accept what the companies say. We’re working people; we just want to do our piece for our subscribers, our readers and our bosses and get the hell out of work and go home and relax. After all, journalism might be a noble profession or a vile one, depending on whom you ask, but for most of us, we’re trying to get through the day and tell people some things that they want to know.

All of us at Reuters and our competitors deal with this. Our Bangalore bureau deals with it more than most. These reporters and editors deal with the heavy volume of company statements. They’re the ones who publish the early versions of the stories that our beat reporters later update and prettify. You could say they’re just moving the copy, but their obligation, as much as anybody else’s, is to interpret what’s going on. They also have to do it within minutes, then update, then do it again, all while knowing that at some point, if the story is important enough, someone else is going to get the byline. A shared credit often is the best there is.

The challenge we face in that bureau is how we move quickly while properly analyzing what the hell is going on when some company releases an incoherent statement. We need to find the drama and the narrative and say it correctly and say it quickly. Not easy. Every New York reporter who did this before we moved these operations to Bangalore knows it. When we do those things, people understand the importance of the news to their lives – or maybe sometimes just their portfolios – but sometimes their lives.

This isn’t a sob story that asks, “why me? Why us? Why the pain and the torture?” It’s a call for all of us who must deal with the daily grind of daily journalism to find a way to move quickly while working with the knowledge that our contacts are trying, often, to obfuscate, and to know what those signs of obfuscation look like. If I do one good thing while I’m here, it will be to compile a glossary of double-speak and jargon, and to offer translations that tell our reporters what is really going on when company X makes statement Y. Once we do that, we’ve taken the important first step toward learning what is really going on. A few more steps, and we will be able to tell people what’s really happening, not what the people who think they run the world think is happening. And if you have the glossary, your biggest fans will sooner know what you have to say. If they want to make a profit, OK fine. If they care about making the world better, so much the better. And even your lowly day story Update 1 might be the root that grows that tree. It’s a nice thought, and it’s what keeps us in this business.

(Tomorrow: Some examples of this silly talk which we must deal with)

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