November 6, 2012 by newsgetting
Peter Preston explains the mission to find the best journalism pieces from Europe and asks: what is quality journalism?
When the founders of the European Press Prize first got together in the summer of 2011, we knew what our mission must be: to support the growth of quality journalism across Europe. We were representatives of seven independent foundations, owners of media operations, from conviction, as forces for good in society. But what is quality journalism? How do you know it when you open a newspaper or read online? Indeed, can “quality” have any precise meaning here? Britain, for instance, has “quality” newspapers that sometimes print third-rate journalism and redtop tabloids that sometimes produce reporting of the very highest standard. Try awarding individual papers or magazines stars, as you would to a Michelin restaurant, and foolish confusion soon follows. But if you start the other way round, defining journalism that lacks all quality, then the mists begin to clear. Quality journalism isn’t ripped from some celebrity PR or company hand-out. It isn’t the “churnalism” of reporters at desks turning out pieces on a conveyor belt. It isn’t an easy following of received wisdom, an apportioning of praise or blame without intelligent, individual thought. It isn’t the mere repetition of political slogans.
Quality journalism has a serious purpose. It aims to inform and sometimes educate the reader. It champions the freedom of the press, because that freedom underpins democracy. It believes in full and diligent research, because the stories it develops have to be rooted in facts. It understands the power of the written word and the visual power of fine photography. It tackles complex subjects and helps make them simpler. It is never afraid to take a contrary view, for democracy depends on reasoned alternatives. It is the product of free minds, not formulas. It believes it can foster a vibrancy in public debate, provide fresh perception of the possible and new understanding of the human condition. It can be the voice of one man or woman, working alone – or of a mighty publishing empire. It seeks to tell the truth as it sees it, and to uphold the right of others to explore or dispute such truth.
In sum, it is involved, committed, passionate – but also passionately committed to accuracy and fairness. It is humble, not sanctimonious or pompous. It stands alongside its readers. It is there for them, and for the society they live in. We know, instinctively, that we should be poorer without it.
So most of us, I think, recognise quality journalism when we encounter it (which many of us feel is much less often than we would wish). Who will win these prizes as they begin this year to salute the qualities we need?
Maybe a fearless, dogged investigative reporter, exposing corruption or hypocrisy in high places. Maybe a columnist or economics correspondent helping to change minds in the midst of European financial crisis. Maybe a battling editor fighting to change minds and directions. Maybe a blogger or online wizard exploring new techniques of communication. But one thing, if we’re right, will unite them: a serious intent in a serious world. We’ll believe again, as we turn the pages or press the buttons, that journalism can make a difference across all 47 countries of the continent we share – and that this, at its best, is the quality which matters most.
By Peter Preston (journalist, author and former editor of The Guardian)