This post by Minority Thought, about a story that appeared exactly the same in a lot of different places, has prompted a bit of debate. What's wrong with using PA or wire copy, some journalists argue. Why can't we just copy and paste other people's stuff - that's what they're there for! That's just the way things are done. (With the implication: of course, you wouldn't understand; you're not in the business yourself, just sniping from the outside).
Yes and yes, of course; and there's no reason to suppose that PA journalists are anything other than excellent professionals - and of course they are - but I think people in the industry don't realise how this kind of thing is seen from the outside. As I wrote last week, tell a non-journalist about the practice of copying & pasting press releases, or wire copy, and so on, and popping it into your publication as if you had something to do with it, and they won't be spectacularly impressed. And there's a reason for that: it's not spectacularly impressive.
Did we really become journalists so we could copy and paste other people's stuff rather than seeing, experiencing, being there? Did we? I didn't. I never did. Luckily I suppose I have the perspective of someone who is tumbling out my (ill-chosen) profession in the coming weeks, and I doubt I'll be allowed back in even if I want to get back in; and I remember, just faintly, that glimmer of wanting to write for a living that drove me to get there in the first place. Wanting to write. Wanting to write my own words, say how I saw things, be there myself and tell others what I had seen. Not sit at a desk and regurgitate what someone else had seen, and what they had said, and not even stop to wonder if they'd even been there either, or had just done it off the telly, or off a press release, or whatever.
Copy and paste, where's the problem? The problem, I think, is this: for those of us who believe in journalism as a force for good and as a decent profession, it erodes the credibility slightly. You can talk about the problems of resources and how there isn't the money sloshing around that there once was. Well, fine. And yes, I can see that. But I want to know where my news is coming from, and who wrote it. As a punter, I'm fed up with recycled second or third-hand news, and wire copy slapped in like polyfilla. I want a newspaper to have its own people going to events; and if they can't go, then make it clear you've just cobbled it together off PA and you probably haven't checked anything, but it's probably OK, and it probably won't hurt anyone if it goes in wrong anyway. Let's not maintain this pointless pretence any longer; it doesn't do anyone any good.
Journalists should be out there, doing stuff, not tucked away in dark corners, tinkering at what someone else has done. Otherwise they are just glorified data entry or admin people who happen to know a bit of shorthand that they never use. If we believe in journalism, as a profession and a trade, or a craft, or whatever you want to call it, then you have to want the highest standards. Not all this 'well, everyone does it' or 'it's OK, we trust these guys, we'll just slap their stuff in' attitudes. Is that good enough for a profession? Really? I am not so sure.
I really do think there's a bit of a gulf between people inside the 'profession' and people outside. A gap of credibility. If we (and I can still use we for a bit) as journalists think we can outshine bloggers or citizen journalists then let's do it with hard work, craft, guile and by putting in the hard yards; not with some poxy meaningless qualification then sitting at a desk all day C&Ving other people's stuff, then defending it as if it's all right because everyone does it. No. If we really believe in the profession, stand up for the standards. Or let's all just give up, and watch it all fade away.