Pressing on

Still, if its all about stories, what sort of stories do we want the press to be telling? The sad answer, I suspect, if you democratise the selection process, is that what the public wants is not far off what it gets – with a fair dash of that being served up by the Sun and the Daily Mail.

Just dabbling ever so briefly in the online pages of the latter, the lead story at this precise moment is about Kate Middleton’s wardrobe choices. Then we have tragic loss in Afghanistan. Bad boy chef Jamie whatsit ranting at people who suggest he might just be overweight. How vegetables can make you look cute. And loads and loads of ooo, isn’t it awful.

Where’s the “news”?

Basically: its full of stories about how various unspecified “they’s” – from benefit scroungers to lefties to politically correct immigrant asylum benefit squeakers are doing better than us, somehow, somewhere. In essence, its bottom shelf magazinery puffed up into newspaper size.

Sometimes, the “stories” have national significance – some of the recent trans stuff definitely does: stories about gay marriage are also matters of national import.

But actually, if you are brought up on the middle-to-high-brow of the Grauniad or Times, the idea that all these dead trees lining your newsagent’s rack of a morning carry the same name – “newspaper” – must be quite bizarre. They are not really about “news”: not, that is, if you genuinely consider news to be about government and international relations and science and the like.

No. They are mostly stuffed to the gills with stories. There to entertain, titillate and sometimes, almost by accident, highlight issues of public policy.

Public interest? Nah!

Now there’s a problem, right off. Just because it interests the public…does that mean its in the public interest? Oh, shit! That’s a meaningless distinction, mostly thought up by too clever lawyers and newspaper editors.

Jamie Oliver: public figure, ergo “public interest”. Killer suing prison chief: sort of pi. Vegetables making you look cuter: defo, cause that’s about health. As for trans individuals getting seven grand out of the MOD (out of a budget of way over £100bn): well, its public funds, innit. Ergo public interest.

Where’s the story?

In part this brings me back to what I said to Hel after the first blog on this topic today. Regulation is very difficult. One of the commonest things I hear, both as press critic and as press member is: “that’s not a story” – occasionally tempered by “but this IS a story”. What DOES that mean? As far as an editor is concerned, a thing is a story if its likely to turn on the readers. OK. Turn on readers PLUS titillate their political proclivities. And with click counts and the like nowadays, we know exactly what does tend to titillate.

Being told something is NOT a story is something commonplace: a practice I endured several times a week when I was doing current affairs stuff, from government departments and official bodies determined to cover up their inadequacy. So much so, one mostly just ignores it. Half the time it means something to hide. The rest, if there’s nothing there, it will go away of its own accord.

Funny, though, of late, to find a range of LGBT organisations trying the same trick! Nothing to see here – even when, maybe, they are doing something on behalf of their constituencies those folk would very much like to know.

Of course, story is not some monolithic thing. As Jennie Kermode commented today: story also intertwines with ideas of balance and centre. So where, on domestic violence, balance might once have been between those arguing it was and it was not an issue, the centre has moved and in many spaces, the argument is now between those arguing specific measures do/do not make a difference.

And the WAY a story is told changes it: gender interventions for five-year olds are mostly about asking for tolerance – not starting down the road to transition. Not that you’d know that if you read the national press.

Don’t ask me…

Again, I outline an issue, then step back and scratch my head. Tighten the screw much/at all, and I can think of half a dozen genuine good exposés of government practice that wouldn’t have been written (just by me: now multipy by hundreds of journalists).

Leave the ratchet where it is…and news is little more than an assembly of stories, written with titillation in mind.

The public interest defence doesn’t help much. Not sure how regulation would, either.

jane xx


5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    The Fishwife said,

    Hi Jane, I’d not want you to think that there is no interest in replying. I’m working on something but It will take a little while until I think it’s worth exposing to scrutiny.

  2. 2

    The Fishwife said,

    Jane, there are two things I’d like to see come out of any new regulation of the press, a return to accuracy and neutrality. Around these two central points there are issues of trust that has brought the British Press to the sorry state we see today.

    Accuracy is not difficult, it may be somewhat time consuming but mostly, not even bordering on difficult. Where the whole story is not know, perhaps it’s incumbent on the Editor to direct that reporters make this clear. Herein may be a symptom or a cause of many ill ‘reported’ stories. At one time, at time when I was proud to know some people working for a local paper, ‘Reporter’ was a coveted title. They reported what they knew to be true, they didn’t make it up, they didn’t leave out bits to put a slant on the story, they reported the facts. When they got it wrong, they reported that too, on the front page. The ‘rag’ had regional and even national respect, if you wanted to know what was going on, you read the Liverpool Echo. The title ‘Journalist’ has altogether different connotations. To me, what I’m doing here is a form of journalism, I’m reporting on and commenting on a subject from my point of view, introducing my own perspective and writing without inhibiting (or questioning) my own prejudice.

    I’m struck by this published in 1996 in The New York Times.
    Exactly 100 years ago today, Adolph S. Ochs, the founding father of the modern Times, published a declaration of principles in these pages setting forth his goals for the respectable but failing newspaper he had just taken over. The 38-year-old publisher, who had already rescued a dying paper in Chattanooga, Tenn., now found himself pitted in New York against powerful, sensationalistic competitors in the heyday of yellow journalism. His statement envisioned a dignified and responsible alternative that would provide trustworthy news and opinion. One especially elegant and inspirational goal — ”to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved” — has held a place of honor at The Times ever since. Ochs’s statement, reprinted below, was widely quoted at the time and remains a worthy credo for journalists everywhere, however difficult to fulfill. (American spelling)

    It’s noteworthy that above The ‘Header’ for the piece is a very clear mention that it is an ‘Opinion’.

    The piece mentions impartiality and perhaps that’s a better word than my choice, neutrality, though the words are not quite synonymic Neither word would have any place in the type of ‘Yellow Journalism’ we have become accustomed to seeing today in the popular press. I’ve relied on Wikipedia for a definition here because I don’t think their interpretation is contentious.
    Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

    If we are to retain a free press that the public can start to trust I believe there needs to be a return to ‘Reportage’ and an end to comment pretending to be the facts. No slants, no withholding inconvenient parts of the story that would allow people to make up their own mind. I’m sure most readers of your blog will remember the recent ‘reporting’ of a story about a trans man. The piece gave the impression that the man had been interviewed and given his consent to the story, nothing could be further from the truth. This was, IMHO, quite deliberate and is symptomatic of the distortions of truth that has become commonplace.

    Moving on to considering the place of ‘Comment’ in modern news reporting, I’m convinced that there is no place for this in the work of a reporter. People have their own public and private moral compasses, not necessarily the same, but they are well able to make up their own minds given all the known facts. A case in point, the news about MP’s expenses when initially reported, gave the facts. The facts were enough, people could decide for themselves whether this was morally reprehensible or not. The tabloids took the story and imprinted on it their own (manufactured?) sense of outrage. There was no need for this except for sensationalism, the steady drip of stories reporting facts was enough to bring about change. Comment, clearly labelled as opinion, from the Editors of the various newspapers would have also been justified. What we have now is an editorial policy that dispenses with factual reporting and replaces it with a slant to reflect the way they want to shape public opinion.

    Within an item labelled as ‘Opinion’, the respect for accuracy seems to have disappeared. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read items of ‘commentary’ that had a (deliberate?) dismal lack of knowledge and understanding about the subject they are writing on. I don’t think the defence of ‘opinion’, relied upon by Editors was ever meant to cover playing fast and loose with the facts.

    Perhaps, at the heart, the real problem is the misuse of editorial power, power used to advance their own agenda. Reportage should only have one agenda, truth.

    (Truth may be subjective, but I’m fairly sure all your readers will share a close approximation of my understand of what the word means.)


  3. 3

    Paula TransPanther said,

    hehehe.. “of a morning” .. sorry Jane, I’m poisoning your “proper English” with my northern-isms. Happen as I’ll have to comment less before I has tha grumbling on like an Eccles navvy.

    Very thoughtful article, and what a good comment!! tpublish

    The modern lazyness really is astoiunding.. newspapers used to get it right and check their facts when it was far harder to do so.. and only publish when they actually had it straight, or at least as factually accurate as they could get it.,. Far too much we see as so called “news” these ddays is no more than malicious gossip and runour.. often unsubstantiated, and yet held up as gospel truth.. (good term that.. a load of fairy story held up as a statement of fact.. contemplate the term “gospel truth”.. oxymoron?)

    Anyroad up.. I’m off.. Still thinking about the “other matter” ..

  4. 4

    […] is hinted at by the excellent comment on the last piece on this topic from fishwife. I don’t quite agree with their distinction between the WORDS […]

  5. 5

    […] or are asked to support a fairly nebulous concept known as “objectivity”. Its inherent in the model put forward by fishwife and its supposedly typified by the fact that, having no voice of her own, the “reporter” must […]

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