Why writers should call out other writers when they do poor work

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Earlier in the year, my stepmother was dragged into a PR nightmare when the founder and owner of a program for gifted children became the subject of an article in a major Australian newspaper. My stepmother is a licensee of the program and a teacher, taking it into primary schools and offering additional educational challenges for children who have been assessed as gifted. The owner had made the mistake of posting opinion pieces on the business’s website and a concerned parent, upon seeing the controversial posts, immediately contacted the newspaper wanting to have it exposed.

That concerned parent had a point. The posts weren’t just controversial and inappropriately featured on the business’s website, they were also completely unacceptable in the context of the program being offered in schools. However, instead of the journalist making these points in a balanced piece of reporting, she instead decided to target and ridicule the elderly owner of the program.

The article contained more than a few factual inaccuracies and when contacted and informed about these errors – whether they were intentional for effect or genuine mistakes isn’t clear – the journalist didn’t issue a correction. Instead, she took quotes from my stepmother that appeared in an article I wrote and inserted them into her original article in an effort to reinforce her misguided approach and continue the ridicule. The quotes were not reproduced in full but selectively used and in some instances, the quotes had entire words changed, making them not quotes at all.

I don’t mind so much about having my literary work appropriated for this purpose because I wrote it in an effort to give my stepmother a voice and clarify the facts that were being shouted down by a journalist and a mob of uninformed readers who were more interested in a sensationalised story.

What I do mind is that this journalist is even able to call herself a journalist and tarnish what was once a genuinely respectable writing profession by doing such a poor job. Instead of speaking to the people who deliver the program in schools, she spoke only to the owner who, although she owns the content, isn’t teaching anymore and doesn’t have any direct contact with schools or children. And then she approached everyone she could think of including health professionals, education professionals and politicians, all of whom had no direct knowledge of the program, misinformed them about the program and then asked them for comment.

She accused the program of trying to indoctrinate children and compromise their health when it does nothing of the sort. She deliberately conflated the views of the founder with the content of the program, even though she had never seen the content of the program.

It was hardly surprising when the article was shared 10,000 times on Facebook by other concerned parents, including those whose children were already enrolled in, participating in and enjoying the program, which included such innocuous topics as Minding your Money, Basic Engineering, Ancient Egypt and Morphing Dirt into Diamonds. And, of course, once the comments began rolling in – informed, or more accurately uninformed by the article they read without knowing any better – the mob mentality made it a hundred times worse.

I don’t blame those readers. It’s a credit to the consumers of news that they still believe a major newspaper can be relied on for accurate and fair reporting. But it’s a real shame that neither the newspaper nor the journalist in this instance delivered it.

Writing is one of those skills that many, many people believe – often erroneously – that they can do. We’ve all seen plenty of bad examples – people who have interesting stories but no ability to execute the writing, people who have the ability to execute the writing but no understanding of what makes an interesting story, people who have neither and give it a go anyway.

But journalism requires another level of skill again. It requires the ability to put aside personal feelings and judgements. It requires the ability to fully investigate all sides of the story. It requires the ability to determine the facts and separate them from emotions and outright lies. And it requires full disclosure. Leaving out parts of the story because they don’t suit a pre-determined angle just won’t cut it.

If a journalist, or any kind of writer, can’t do these things and the result is poor writing – whether in investigation or execution – then they should expect to be called out. Poor writing, especially when it unwarrantedly results in destroyed careers, ruined reputations and negatively changed lives, is unacceptable. And those perpetrating it should be run out of the profession.

Previously, when I’ve seen examples of poor writing, I’ve stayed quiet thinking it isn’t my place to say anything, thinking that surely readers will be able to see through it, thinking that anyone who writes poorly won’t have a job writing for long. It doesn’t seem to be that way, though. So I’m not going to stay quiet anymore. Not now that I’ve seen how much damage just one piece of poor writing can do. It’s the duty of all writers.

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