Wanting to believe information gathering can't get any worse

In the 1970s, I loved being a reporter. On a good day, there was nothing better.

Meeting a fascinating person and telling a good news story, following a lead (large or small), trying to make sense of a complicated document, reporting a meeting, shedding some light on a topical issue. The possibilities were endless, really.

For someone like me who has become increasingly curious with age, who relishes the challenge of finding out things and understanding them, talking to people, and writing, it still sounds ideal.

Only it isn't.

When I was asked to return to reporting a few years back, I wasn't sure what I would have to offer. Life experience should have been a plus, but I am not sure it was.

I was slow and ponderous, too interested in the worthy but dull, and spent too much time worrying about what I wrote and whether I was capturing what I was told adequately and treating people fairly. When I wasn't writing stories, I was thinking about new ones to write. It took over my life.

I was a health reporter, something it seems few journalists aspire to be. It is complex, highly political, often poorly understood by the public, and hard to get to grips with. I loved the challenge of that, but it could be hard to convince news editors of the value of certain stories which would languish unpublished, sometimes for weeks.

What made the job particularly unbearable, however, was being held at arm's length from many of the people I wanted to talk to and having to deal constantly with PR people. Most were interested in trying to persuade me to write about the good news they were peddling and getting me fudgy answers to any questions about anything I actually wanted to know.

''Put it in an email,'' they'd say to my questions and when I got the reply, often I found it had carefully avoided what was asked. Contesting that was frequently futile.

For those of us who like to get to know people we might deal with regularly and glean the background information relevant to our area of writing, these PR machines, in big organisations and small, dominating the media landscape in many areas, make this virtually impossible.

Temporarily filling in at Allied Press' Dunedin community newspaper, The Star, recently, I hoped against hope this might have improved in the four and a-half years since I left full-time journalism to retain what remained of my sanity and pursue my interest in adult literacy tutoring.

A bright spot was Pete, from Inland Revenue. He found out what I wanted to know, rang me back with the response, then, when that prompted more questions, went off to find the answers to those too. And he had a sense of humour.

But I was bemused that at three non-controversial interviews (one involving the Dunedin City Council and two the Southern District Health Board), communications staff felt the need to sit in. On the last occasion, at Dunedin Hospital, two staff tag-teamed so I wasn't left unsupervised. Why? Were they going to shout ‘‘Stop!'' and escort me off the premises if I asked a political question, or were they worried I would suddenly run amok, rifling through filing cabinets or questioning patients about the food? It was demeaning and unnecessary (and a waste of public money).

During my few weeks on the job I managed to get told off by a comms person at the Ministry of Education for committing the sin of approaching her directly (because I had been dealing with her on another matter) rather than using the ministry's generic email address.

I also had a fruitless exchange with police media advisers, in the very week the force was skiting about its brave new national media centre, over questions about responding to vetting requests. They could tell me that 1% to 2% of requests require more work and fall outside the 20-day turnaround time police are supposed to meet, but they couldn't readily give me a total number of requests and seemed miffed when I didn't think that was good enough. I might have only scored 63% in school cert maths (scaled up 30% that year) but even I know a percentage is meaningless without knowing what the 100% represents. Aaaaaargh! (Although that was not quite how I put it in the newsroom, where attention was drawn to the decibel level of my swearing.)

Journalists don't complain enough publicly about this sort of nonsense, possibly because they fear repercussions, further reducing the trickle of information. Is it any wonder some resort to regurgitating rubbish from social media and pretending it's news?

The Pollyanna in me wants to believe it can't get any worse, but sadly, I ain't no Hayley Mills.

- Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer

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