As a teenager I became suspicious of the press. I woke up to a front page headline in the local paper “PROFESSOR SAYS OBJECT NOT INCONSISTANT WITH OUTER SPACE”. This was the result of an interview the preceding day that I had overheard. A reporter had asked my father, the tame town egghead, about a piece of metal found on a local property and allegedly dropped by a UFO. My father spent a considerable period of time trying to normalise the piece of metal, saying he did not know what it was but making suggestions as to possible aetiology, which did not include outer space. Finally he was asked directly, “Is it inconsistent with being from outer space?” He replied, “I don’t know what it is so can’t say it is inconsistent with anything, but it looks like part of a ballcock from a cistern, a small one”. Of course none of his doubts appeared in this sensational UFO story. (After a day or so of more research it transpired that it had been a part of a valve mechanism from an old Hallstrom kerosene refrigerator.)
I have found this to be fairly typical of any facts I have read in the press where I have been an observer – fully apprised of the facts (but not involved personally).
Despite this, I think that we have exactly the media that the majority want. The areas of its weakness are the areas in which we, the consuming public, wish upon it. We demand our information so fast that some of it is bound to be inaccurate, and we want it sensational; we are not interested in the mundane story.
There is much less room for sensationalism in opinion pieces but controversy is still sought after, although responsibility is taken by the reporters for their interpretation of facts and the reader is usually made aware of two sides to an argument. But this takes longer to produce and to absorb.
We have not the patience for this with “pure” news (which can never purely be free of reporter attitudes anyway – they are only human). We demand that the inexplicable be explained immediately. We demand to know facts in situations in which authorities, such as the police, publicly say they do not know. If our reporters don’t know, we require them to extrapolate. We want this done in a way that tugs at our heartstrings but at the same time gives the appearance of satisfactory neutrality and does not make us feel too vulnerable ourselves. We want to distance ourselves from those we wish to be able to see as all evil and sympathise, perhaps not empathise, with the unfortunate. In short we want to feel safe enough to be judgemental. And newspapers, magazines, television and radio bow to our demands.
If one looks or listens closely, for example, one notices that young male victims are usually youths. Young male perpetrators of crimes or misdeeds are men or possibly just males. People who encounter difficulties in life can often be unfortunate people. They can sometimes be ill, yet those allegedly mistreating them are apparently always healthy and as far as we know “on top of the world”. Persecutors, by implication deliberately nasty or negligent people, are sometimes public servants, council or hospital workers etc., who cannot speak out to explain away their alleged misdeeds or inaction. And anyway we do not want them interrupting with explanations so as to upset our ingrained expectations.
And we wish all this to be encapsulated. It should be a big headline, a very short story, a sound bite with a relevant or half relevant picture.
I do not think that we, the public, sanction deliberate misinformation or illegalities. Currently news headlines are full of some major media misdeeds which are now public. Most expect illegalities or defamation can be dealt with under existing laws. But is there a “right to know” and is it limited by any “right to privacy”? Those who chose public occupations or make public statements have to know that publicity, at times unsolicited, is an essential part of such a role. Others might not take on such a role for that very reason. Those who step outside the norm also must know, as they do so, that there is a significant chance of publicity.
Many seem to crave access to a great deal of private information about other people and, strangely, many of us also appear happy to be revealing about ourselves. It is as if “all the world’s a stage” is reality.
Well is it? And how is it played out in the media? We have a fashion industry, all about seeing, being seen and known. We have reality TV. We have women’s magazines. Even in very little ordinary ways many of us we want to be identified, perhaps as part of a group. When so many people live their lives apparently seeking to be known and, surprisingly, others wish to vicariously involve themselves in those lives, it must be an absorbing information exchange for them.
I have probably made it clear that I think a lot of our current journalism is a waste of good writing time catering to consumers who wish to delude themselves by demanding information that makes them feel better. It can be very intrusive. It can leave people with no way to opt out. But I have to ask myself what is wrong with that as long as everyone is aware of what is happening? And it does seem pretty obvious. This is a democracy and I am far from the arbiter of its taste. We have the media we seem to want, and I, like many others enjoy and am informed by a section of it while deploring other parts. My neighbours do the same all in their different ways.
But when something goes wrong within this arrangement it is the media’s fault, never ours.