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The Ten Rules of Reporting

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Few people are as well qualified to give practical advice about journalistic practice as former ABC Editorial Director, and now Alumni Board member, Alan Sunderland. We asked author and Professor of Communications Matthew Ricketson to review Alan’s new book The Ten Rules of Reporting: Journalism for the Community (Simon & Schuster, 2022).


The Ten Rules of Reporting: Journalism for the Community by Alan Sunderland

Reviewed by Matthew Ricketson / 3 December 2022

Taking a cue from Alan Sunderland’s new book, The Ten Rules of Reporting, I’ll get straight to the point. This is an excellent short primer on how to do journalism. Get it. Read it. Use it.

End of review? Editor says no, we need a bit more. Okay, I’ll expand. Here goes.

The Ten Rules of Reporting is excellent, first because it is a distillation of Sunderland’s more than four decades experience as a journalist, primarily in broadcasting at SBS and the ABC, and equally important, experience in his role as the ABC’s Editorial Director between 2013 and 2019.

In that role he was required to think about journalistic standards, help formulate them, defend journalistic practice when audiences complained about it and advocate for journalism both internally and externally.

The Ten Rules of Reporting is short and easy to navigate. The value for working journalists or for those aspiring to work in journalism in their local communities – a real area of need as Sunderland rightly identifies – is that you can read the whole book in a couple of hours or you can zero in on any of the ten rules as they relate to the issue you’re grappling with.

The ten rules, each outlined in short chapters ranging from four to twelve pages, are: be accurate; provide context; find the public interest; know your community; be impartial; deliver diverse perspectives; be independent; avoid harm; respect others, and be accountable. The rules are deliberately aimed at reporting rather than the full range of journalism, though there is one short chapter on opinion writing.

The Ten Rules of Reporting is a primer. That is, it provides enough information to help clarify each of the ten rules and why they’re important but does not dwell on the kind of detail you would find in a full-length textbook or an academic journal article.

This is a considerable strength of the book. Journalists are notoriously time-poor and those aspiring to get into journalism can get lost or worse snared in the ethical and legal thickets thrown up by elements of journalistic practice.

Sunderland’s skill is to provide enough of a sense of the complexity but in clear, brisk prose that won’t detain you long.

A primer, though, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is “that which serves as a first means of instruction” or “a small introductory book on any subject”.

Journalism is one of those activities that the more you do it the more you realise that for every element that is simple and drillable – check whether Jane Brown spells her name Jayne Browne – there are others that are complex and require reflection, reading and chewing over with colleagues.

For instance, Sunderland has good clear advice on use of the terms “on the record”, “off the record” and “background” (on pages 97-99), but the relationship between journalists and their sources has many layers of complexity, and not simply because most of it happens away from the public gaze, though that can aggravate the mistrust many have for journalists.

To take two high-profile, high-powered current examples, what exactly went on between the political reporters for The Australian, Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, in their dealings with the former prime minister, Scott Morrison, that led to the revelations about his multiplying ministries that in turn led to a government-initiated inquiry by a former high court judge and a rare censure in the parliament?

The journalists were told by Morrison about some but not all of the ministries but we don’t know exactly when they were told or on what basis. The journalists’ book, Plagued, does not enlighten us and the public actually only found out what I’ve just stated when Morrison himself outed the journalists at his lengthy media conference after controversy over the multiple ministries erupted in August. (If you want more on these issues, I wrote about them for The Conversation

Then there is Niki Savva’s just released book about the Morrison government, Bulldozed, that in stark contrast to Plagued, offers a blistering portrait of the former PM, some of which comes from people quoted on the record but some from anonymous sources.

I have not read Savva’s book yet and am not offering criticism of it but as a journalist I can see all sorts of complexities in the negotiations that went on between her and her many sources in politics. Who was she able to persuade to talk, and who wasn’t she able to persuade, and how did that shape the book? How much help to her was it that she had worked in former Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello’s, office, and how much of a hindrance, especially after she had written numerous columns for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that were critical of the government in general and Morrison in particular? Who refused to talk to her as a result?

Some might say these issues concern books not daily journalism but the issues are similar, and in important ways, different across one form to the other. It’s all journalism though. These books have been written by journalists and since 2005 there has been a Walkley award given for book-length journalism.

All this means is that journalism is a good deal more supple as a form than is often thought, which is a good thing in my view. Journalism also involves a more complicated set of practices than is often thought, not least because it intersects with the exercise of power in society, as is clear in the Plagued and Bulldozed examples.

The Ten Rules of Reporting, then, is an excellent place to start. Just don’t stop there. The academic in me would like to shower you with a long list of suggested readings but I’ll confine myself to one: The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Now in its fourth edition, their book is, like Sunderland’s, pithily written, but delves more fully into the issues surrounding journalism and ranges beyond daily reporting to other journalistic genres.

*The Ten Rules of Reporting: Journalism for the Community by Alan Sunderland, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 154 pages, $24.99.

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