I recently received an email from Mark, a reader, which prompted me to consider the responsibilities of property journalists.
It was this story from the Sydney Morning Herald, about an Australian who had bought a down-at-heel apartment in Detroit - he was shot and later died outside the property. Mark had some weeks earlier contacted me about an article I had written in The Observer (here) saying how some British estate agents were now selling Detroit properties for relatively small sums.
The reader’s correspondence was polite but clear in its suggestion: that by writing about the subject of buying repossessed US properties as investments, I was implicitly approving of it and perhaps unwittingly leading people into situations of debt and even danger.
It may not surprise you that I disagree. I write about almost every aspect of residential property but by doing so I neither personally endorse nor actively encourage readers to follow the course of action in any particular article.
A journalist’s responsibilities probably fall into two categories: firstly to make a story accurate, legal and interesting; secondly to fulfil the journo’s deal with an editor by filing it to the right length and on time. But is there a third? If so is it something rather less tangible and, these days, rather less fashionable - to protect readers from themselves?
Mark’s suggestion was clearly that I should so protect readers - by judging what is ‘good’ for people and what is not. By extension, Mark’s argument also means I should be wary of writing about buy-to-let in the UK in case investors over-extend, and perhaps avoid owner occupation stories in case readers buy a home and find themselves unable to afford the repayments.
But somewhere a little deeper, he may have a point.
With hindsight it is easy to see that all property journalism got a little carried away with some trends five years ago. The extensive and expensive PR employed to promote problematic Spanish developments, and the estate agency spin that led to ‘city centre living’ stories about apartments that even today lie empty in Leeds are two cases in point. In retrospect, I regret not showing more scepticism to both.
Yet the balance we draw has surely to fall on the side of leaving it to readers to draw their own conclusions. We can write about a particular development, sector or country - but only the reader can judge whether that is right for them.
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