Sunday, 10 July 2011

All the news that's fit to print

Many years ago I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. In truth, I only thought about it for a short time. I was 16 or 17, at that stage in life when the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" has a special resonance.

They were worrying months as I embarked on A-levels and hoped the subjects I'd chosen were appropriate for my future path. For a day or so I seriously considered a career as a zoologist. This was nothing to do with a love for animals; I picked the last information card in my school Career Advisor's A-Z file system and thought, "Sod it, you'll do."

True story, by the way.

But journalism was something that interested me on a deeper, more deliberate level. At that time - and we're talking about the late 1980s here - my view of journalism was probably hopelessly naive and outdated. I thought the job would involve gathering up information and presenting it to the paying public in a compelling and engaging way. I liked words and was attracted to the thought of using them to earn an honest wage.

Plus it was mainly indoor work with no heavy lifting.

As it happened, something else came about to turn my head in another direction and I took a different path. I'm still not entirely sure what I'll do when I grow up (or even when this might be), but the uncertainty doesn't appear to be causing me too many issues at present.

However, recent events have caused me to revisit that earlier assessment of journalism once more. Today we have seen the final edition of News of the World. The acts leading up to the paper's closure have been covered in fine detail just about everywhere else, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that the headline 'The Paper That Died of Shame' has been repeated again and again.

I'd been aware for some time that my earlier idealised vision of journalism as a career was just that - a vision. In short, it's probably just like many other jobs. It can be tedious. It must seem like drudgery, at times, cross-cut with the extreme pressure that comes with filling column inches and making the readers want to come back for more. Short-cuts must be attractive. And this, I think, is where media of all types - not just printed journalism - can fall down.

I'm not really bothered about the tabloid papers' fascination with banal celebrity gossip and kiss-and-tell sex scandals. Not my sort of thing, to be honest. What professional footballers get up to in Travelodge bedrooms is of no interest to me. But the Great British Public creates a market for this tosh by buying it in the first place. Coming over all moral about some of the content strikes me as a little hollow when 5+million people used to buy NotW every week. That's a far more complex issue.

But it's other, more subtle things that enrage me about journalism. It's those short-cuts I mentioned above. Haven't got the space to include the detail? Scared that your audience can't cope with a little complexity? Never fear, just strip the story down, turn it into black and white, us and them. Those details just make the story look a little messy, don't they? Leave them out then.

Want to get your readers engaged with a story? Let's personalise it. Nothing better than a bit of rabble-rousing, is there? Gets the blood pumping at the breakfast table. And you have to throw in a bit of generalisation too. Remember, we need to keep this simple.

This is why you have people genuinely believing that all immigrants are benefit thieves (when they're not stealing British jobs, that is). Or that everyone working for a bank is a blood-sucking vampire. That all public-sector workers are lazy and overpaid, serving out time for their gold-plated pension. Every single MP - without exception - is fiddling their expenses. You can't wear an England football shirt in case you offend 'others'. And there's a paedophile on every single street corner.

Are any of these statements true? Of course not. The truth is, as always, far more complex. But these ideas didn't just spring, fully-formed, into the head of the man on the number 7 bus. They were put there by someone. Someone who probably started off thinking that a career in journalism would involve using words to convey a message.

Of course, what we've seen this week is the general public and advertisers feeling genuine revulsion at stories of journalists paying others to hack into the phone messages of abducted 13-year-old girls. Newspapers showing outrage at 7/7 while listening to the voicemail of the victim's relatives. Claiming to support 'Our Brave Boys'  while intercepting the phones of dead soldiers' families. 

What we're not seeing yet is much in the way of protest about the other journalistic short-cuts - the three stage approach of simplify, personify, generalise. Perhaps we just think all papers do it, not just the red-tops. Perhaps we've gone too far down that road.

We've already seen short-cuts in operation. The closure of the NotW has been characterised as something political. It's the lefties having a pop at a free-market-loving News International title, some say. Move along, nothing to see here.

To take that view is to miss the point, though. There are 16-year-olds possibly considering a career in journalism right now, wondering what to make of it all. They are right to do so. The media has a huge influence on our daily lives - even if you don't read the papers you will come into contact with its effects. We deserve better from journalism. This is way too important to categorise as a simple case of right against left.

It's a case of right against wrong.


Anonymous said...

I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up--in fact, when I think about my high school aspirations--I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour. I even worked at a newspaper right after high school and that was back in the days when copy editors made sure lead paragraphs contained who, what, when, where and why; headlines were taken from the lead paragraph. There was a difference between news and opinion--or so we like to think. There is an ebb and tide to journalism though--if you look at newspapers 100 years ago, some were as sensational as now. Coverage on both sides of the pond during the Civil War is amazingly sensational. And that war was sensationalized and "patriotic" until Matthew Brady's pictures of the ravages of war (as well as the long lists of dead soldiers) changed public opinion just as surely as TV's nightly pictures of the Vietnam war changed American opinion 100 years later. Good journalism carries on; sensationalism journalism has always been with us. Discerning readers can tell the difference; the rest of the readers? Meh-it's their money. Eventually, journalistic excesses and crimes are brought into the light--eventually.
Cheers, Vicki

Tom said...

I, for one, am glad you didn't go into journalism. I'm afraid it would have stifled your fantastic sense of humor or just beat you to death with deadlines.
You're correct in that it is right against wrong and people (Owners) view journalism the same way people view politics: Life or death, and it's neither. Its a job. A way of life and support for one's family or lifestyle. Nothing more. It can change people's lives at times, but it's not much more than that.


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