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Saturday, July 28, 2007

You better take care if I find you've been creeping 'round my back stairs

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: THAT'S A LIE!!! I KNOW YOU DID IT!!11!!!

There are two things I cling to:

  1. Journalism is a noble profession.
  2. Smoking pot for years will not turn you into a paranoid freak.
Okay, so I don't actually "cling" to the second one, but it is relevant to today's discussion. Actually, I have lost my grip on both of these things over the past few weeks.

One of the editors of Name of Paper Withheld is leaving his job and going to work for a local diamond mine. This has brought about a flurry of talk about the "dark side", and I think I've had just about enough of it.

Perhaps someone could explain to me which of these jobs is closer to the dark side:
  1. Providing factual information to the public.
  2. Writing stories that mix facts with misunderstanding, speculation and rumour, passing all four off as facts and ignoring any facts that don't fit with what you think the story must be.
I mean it. Please tell me which is closer to the dark side, because I'm very interested in your answer. TELL ME RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT!!!

Hmmm. Maybe I am coming a bit unglued myself.

I understand the pressures journalists work under. First, they need a story. Never underestimate this. Journalism is a tough business, and reporters are expected to file stories every day, whether there is anything happening or not. That old joke about the slow news day is real: a desperate reporter will start asking questions about the weirdest things if there is no actual news. (What? When it's smoky outside, people should stay inside if the smoke bothers them? Hold the front page, we've got a scoop!)

Second, they need a story. Yes, this sounds like the same thing as the last paragraph, but I promise that I have not completely lost my mind. A true story is not just something to fill a hole at the top of the hour. A true story has a beginning, middle, and end. It has characters and some type of action. CBC is totally on the "story" bandwagon, and their reporters will tell you that they tell stories for a living. (This is very important to them.) Other reporters will call it a "piece", but the idea is the same. A really good story includes some sort of struggle. This is why the news is full of crime: it is not because crime is unusual, but because it falls neatly into the "story" format, complete with characters and a beginning, middle and end. Best of all, there is no pesky research for a reporter to do: the details are spoon-fed by the prosecutor.

Third, the story needs to be understandable. This is where I usually start to get annoyed. You see, most issues are not black and white. Usually there is a lot of gray, with some red and blue thrown in for good measure. However, this does not make a good story or an understandable story. Watch the local news and you will almost never see anything like this: There is no typical client. Many have complicated needs, and we can't help them with all of their problems. In fact, unless they take responsibility for changing their lives, we can hardly help them at all. (Funny, I don't think that's hard to understand at all.) Complicating details are left out, and others are summarized into something that is understandable but not quite true. I call this "more punchy, less true" journalism. In fact, if you call an editor to complain about this, he will argue that a) it really is true or b) nobody would ever understand the difference.

Fourth, the characters need to fit into one of about six different journalism stereotypes:
  • The harried small-business owner
  • The ne'er-do-well
  • The angel
  • The expert
  • The uncaring authorities (usually but not always the government)
  • The maverick
If the characters don't fit into one of these categories, the story won't work. Deadline journalism is not about shades of gray, and characters can't be three-dimensional. Some details will have to be ignored for the sake of the story. (There are bigger issues at stake here, people: Journalism itself requires it!) If a person is cast as an angel, for example, everything he says will be completely true. He will be long-suffering but never to blame for any of his troubles. And remember: the true angel in any news story is the reporter herself for having the courage to shine a light on the tragedy.

Journalists, of course, will never admit to any of this. They are usually convinced that they can explain complicated issues better than those so-called "experts". Knowledge isn't power, it's suffocating! In fifteen minutes, a journalist can learn everything he needs to know about an issue to be able to explain it to people.

Right. And I'm the one on the dark side.


Dad said...

It's good to have my suspicions confirmed by someone who knows these things "from the inside."
I have also observed: the news always tells us what (we think) we already know. It continually repeats a few, very familiar story lines. For some reason, people are not bothered by the fact that these simplistic stories are nothing like real life.

Some sort of unpleasantness must have motivated this piece, but your observations are not from "the dark side". Quite the opposite: they are a recognition that real life is complex and fantastic. Real life is a novel, not a news story. Aren't you glad?

Steve & Megan said...

Dad, you're the perfect example. I've read several news stories about you, and you are always cast as the angel or the maverick. ("Maverick" stories being the more interesting of the two, of course.) One day soon you'll be cast as the uncaring authority.

Once all of the characters are in place, the story almost writes itself. Think how easy it is to do journalism this way!

Dad said...

Angel? Maverick?
Well, those were obviously accurate stories. I was referring to simplistic, inaccurate stories, not good reporting.

Cin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cin said...

ok, did some more research, and I take back the appendicitis comment. It is more serious then that. Edited version to follow:

I am going to respond to this post tonight, with detail. I just don't have time right now to do your insightfulness justice.

I will say this is why the way most people cover health stories drives me insane. I am a stickler for research and detail, and Megan knows I've been mistaken for a nurse in news briefings. To me, the only way I can explain a disease or condition simply yet accurately is if I know almost everything there is to know about it.

For example, breast cancer. I hate breast cancer stories. We always have a "survivor", then info on whatever breast cancer fundraiser or research is the news nugget. The survivor is always cast as having bravely evaded death. In my early days, I wrote these stories (when I weas 22 and fresh out of school).

What most stories don't tell you (because most reporters don't ask) is what TYPE of breast cancer the woman had. For example, if it was ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, most women are in no life-threatening danger because of modern treatment. The cancer's gotta go, but that doesn't mean a breastless woman or a corpse nowadays. The plurality of breast cancer patients have DCIS.

In my mind, that changes the story. The "survivor" recovered from a frightening disease. She did not grapple with death in the valley of the shadow.

But the hysterical coverage of all the women on death's door continues, with no mention of how modern medicine has turned this into something much less dangerous.

In health stories, these types of blunders (lack of research and knowledge) can quite frankly kill people. Look at all the stories about vitamin D and cancer that came out earlier this year. How many cancer patients desperately glommed onto massive doses of vitamin D instead of chemo and radiation, because of their fears of the treatments? How many people stopped wearing sunscreen, opening them up to increased risk of melanoma?

All from a study that was not duplicated and was funded by the Vitamin D Council. Gee, I wonder if it was biased???

Ok, gotta go make dinner. Rant over for now.

Torq said...

As for your hope number two... I just wanted to let you know about the sheeple guy... there is a reason that he lives in Thailand.

Steve & Megan said...

The sheeple guy would be a maverick. Fightin' against The Man, man! Is that the government? I KNEW I WAS UNDER INVESTIGATION!!!11!!

Torq said...

I am convinced that they are reading my blog in an attempt to figure out what my generation thinks so that they will be better able to brainwash them through TV commercials and use of fluoride in the water. Why do you think I have been saying all those crazy things??? If they buy it than you should soon see a sudden change in advertising, focusing on ultimate causes. This will give our people enough time to throw of the yoke of slavery keeping us oppressed!